Zion Williamson's Injury Looks Bad for Nike, But It Looks Worse for the NCAA

February 21, 2019

By Chloe Aiello

Zion Williamson's knee sprain did some serious damage to Nike's stock value, but University of New Hampshire School of Law Associate Dean Michael McCann said it likely won't have a lasting impact. For the National Collegiate Athletic Association, however, it's a bit of a different story. McCann said the injury invites a reexamination of outdated rules on student athlete compensation.

"I think there's a common-sensical argument [players] should be paid," McCann told Cheddar. "It's a situation where the NCAA rules, many would say, need to evolve with the times."

Williamson, a freshman at Duke University and star player for the Devils basketball team, sprained his knee Wednesday night when his Nike sneaker disintegrated during the team's big game against the rival University of North Carolina. Former President Barack Obama, a big basketball fan, was in attendance at the game and tweeted well wishes to Williamson.

"Zion Williamson seems like an outstanding young man as well as an outstanding basketball player. Wishing him a speedy recovery," Obama tweeted on Wednesday.

Williamson is one of the highest ranked players in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and considered one of the most exciting players in college basketball. Since the injury occurred during a nationally televised game with the former president watching, McCann said "the timing couldn't have been worse."

Following the highly publicized injury, Nike ($NKE) shares fell about 1.6 percent.

The mishap cost Nike ($NKE) millions and looks bad for the brand, but it probably won't impact Nike's exclusive 12-year deal to supply Duke's shoes and apparel, according to McCann. And considering Williamson's sprain was relatively minor McCann said the incident will likely be "forgotten as an unusual event."

If Williamson's sprain was a career-ending injury, however, things would be different. Due to his student status, the NCAA, the non-profit that regulates student athletes, mandates Williamson can neither accept payment from Nike for treatment, nor can he receive damages. And while Duke bought insurance for him, McCann said the policy is probably worth $10 million or less, which in no way would compensate for a career's worth of earnings and endorsement deals in the NBA.

"This is one of the real ー many would say ー defects of college sports, especially when it involves elite players like this," McCann said.

The NCAA's "amateurism certification," which ensures incoming student athletes have never played professionally prior to recruitment to a college team, is highly controversial. And every so often, especially when a student athlete gets injured, the debate resurfaces.

"The ticket prices to Duke games, partly because of Zion Williamson, have gone way up because he's such a marketable player," McCann said. "Really, the university and the NCAA and the conferences and the coaches ー you can go down the list of a lot of people gaining from his prominence, from his excellence on the court, and yet he doesn't."

The NCAA has long maintained that paying student athletes would erode the careful balance of athletics and academics inherent in college sports, according to the Aspen Institute, but critics say the standard guarantees that everyone except the athlete profits from the arrangement.

"Again let’s remember all the money that went into this game.... and these players get none of it.... and now Zion gets hurt... something has to change @NCAA," Utah Jazz player Donovan Mitchell tweeted following the injury.

The NCAA did not immediately respond to Cheddar's request for comment.

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