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Zion Just Got PAID… Too Bad His Friends At Duke Won’t

This week, Zion Williamson — the 19-year-old freak of basketball nature — signed the biggest sneaker deal in NBA history for a rookie.

Earlier this month, he signed a rookie contract with the New Orleans Pelicans (sorry Knicks fans), making more than 120% of the base salary for a rookie. We all watched in awe during this past 2019 March Madness tournament, as Zion hulked over and dunked on his peers as an unpaid college freshman (and sprained his knee during the season when his Nike sneakers exploded during a game.)

Now, the basketball world impatiently waits for Williamson to take the professional court this October. Most of us are delighted that Zion finally got his pay day. The NBA’s one and done rule limits players like Zion by making them choose between playing for free in college for a year before they turn 19, or playing for a team overseas. Because of the opportunity of more exposure in college, many NBA hopefuls choose to play for one year in college–not only putting themselves at risk for injury before taking the professional stage, but potentially putting themselves in a precarious financial situation. 

As former college athletes — though neither of us received full rides or other Division I athletic perks — we know the life of a student athlete is difficult. The combination of daily lift sessions, practices, training and rehab, class, working, and studying is unbelievably physically and mentally taxing on a young body and mind. Student athletes are expected to perform at the same academic level as their non-athlete peers. Sure, many talented Division I & II athletes get full rides, and with Duke’s tuition currently at a hefty $58,000, that adds up to a nice sum of money for four years, if they play that long before potentially moving on to professional teams.

But can we honestly say that that’s enough? We’ve seen the story about UNC administering “paper classes” to student athletes, where all they need to do is write a paper to pass the class. Instances like this are common in Division I & II schools, and are used to inflate student athlete’s GPAs to remain eligible. In these situations, student athletes aren’t being compensated at all because they’re not receiving the education that was promised to them. When the NCAA refuses to pay student athletes, they make a conscious (and unacceptable) decision to exploit young talent to benefit a billion dollar industry — an industry where the students don’t see a single dime. 

As we write this article, Tammi Gaw, the founder of Advantage Rule, a consulting firm that advocates for athlete’s rights with a focus on college sports, is sitting in a U.S. Senate hearing on the financial exploitation of student athletes and academic fraud in college sports. She spoke to Calling Game in between recess sessions about any other scenarios where an organization would be able to freely take the name and likeness of someone and profit off of it without compensation.

“Not only is there not another situation where name, image and likeness is used in that manner, there is also no other demographic of college students that are restricted in the way that college athletes are,” Gaw told Calling Game. “No theater student is told they cannot sign an autograph. No other student demographic is told they can’t get outside help paying rent or can’t take a free meal. These unreasonable and unjustified restrictions are placed only on college athletes.”

It feels particularly unsettling to know that student athletes are unpaid when we see the type of behavior from Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo during the 2019 March Madness tournament. 64-year-old Izzo (who receives an annual salary of $4.15 million) was especially fired up this March when one of his players, freshman Aaron Henry, apparently wasn’t performing up to his standards. 

The fact that millionaire Izzo had to be physically restrained from an unpaid 18-year-old playing in a tournament that generates millions for the NCAA is unbelievable. And disgusting. Say what you want about coaching styles, but these kids have to put up with Izzo’s psychotic breakdowns on the court AND not receive any type of compensation? Something is wrong here. If you’re going to put someone through the type of lazy coaching that people praise Izzo so fiercely for, at least give them some pocket money. 

The NCAA likes to glamorize the life of a student athlete. In a set of promotions put out this year, the NCAA showed how nonstop an athlete’s day is. Los Angeles Lakers foward Kyle Kuzma summed up the thoughts of every student pretty accurately here:

“In their own television advertisements, the NCAA brags that most of their athletes go pro in something other than their sports,” Tammi Gaw commented. “That means the NCAA are proudly admitting that they are restricting college athletes from earning money on their skills during the only window when most of them would have that opportunity.

“To me, it’s egregious that they are not made to answer for stealing that earning potential from these young people,” she added.

The problem is that these programs make ridiculous amounts of money off of these players–and we’re calling game on it. March Madness, college basketball’s biggest stage, generates about $900 million dollars each year, with a large portion coming from the colossal broadcast deal between CBS and Turner Broadcasting that averages $771 million a year.

It’s not like these kids don’t know the type of revenue they generate for their schools, their coaches, and the NCAA. Their coaches’ salaries are public information. The cable deals can be easily found online. Can you imagine generating such large sums of money, knowing that the tickets sold and cable deals made are all to see you and your teammates play ball, and not getting a single cent of it? The NCAA desperately needs to redefine their perception of “amateurism” and get these kids their checks. In any other profession, if you’re good at something, there are opportunities to get compensated for it. Period. Athletics are no different. Pay these kids that are working so hard to play your favorite abusive coaches.

Calling Game is a weekly opinion column and podcast focused on media coverage of athletes.

[Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images]

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Kelsey Trainor is a former two sport collegiate athlete, collegiate women's basketball coach and current attorney & producer. Amba Jagnarine is a former college athlete in charge of business development at Abrams Media (Mediaite's parent company). We are passionate about sports and giving women a bigger voice in all aspects of it. Twitter: @ktrain_11 | @AmbaJagnarine