A Star’s Shoe Breaks, Putting College Basketball Under a Microscope

A Star’s Shoe Breaks, Putting College Basketball Under a Microscope

February 22, 2019

When the left sneaker of college basketball’s biggest star split open on national television Wednesday night 30 seconds into the biggest game of the season, what spilled out was not only his foot but also questions about the future of a marquee player and about the huge influence shoe companies hold over big-time college basketball.

The episode occurred in a game between the archrivals Duke and North Carolina. Zion Williamson, a Duke freshman, pivoted with the ball above the foul line, and the sheer force of his 285-pound frame and acrobatic versatility appeared to cut the shoe almost in two, as though severed by a sharp knife.

Former President Barack Obama, sitting on the sidelines at the Duke arena, was seen on video pointing at Williamson and appearing to say, “His shoe broke.”

As the scene was replayed on countless highlight shows on Thursday, the damaged shoe threatened to become a nightmare for Nike, which pays tens of millions to elite college sports programs to be the exclusive sponsor for teams and supplier of their footwear.

With his shoe split and his knee sprained, Williamson, an unpaid, budding superstar, sat helpless on the arena floor, staring at the shoe he was wearing in part because of a rich deal between Nike and Duke, one of the world’s wealthiest universities.

Here were all the issues of big-time college sports laid bare: Should amateurism be curbed in college sports, allowing athletes a cut of the money they help produce? Should a prodigious talent like Williamson, who is good enough to play professionally right now, have to risk his future competing for free because of an N.B.A. rule prohibiting him from leaping to the league from high school? Do the sneaker companies, which were at the heart of a federal fraud trial near the start of the season, do more harm than good in college sports?

For a quarter of a century, Nike has been paying Duke tens of millions of dollars to sponsor its teams, and to ensure that its athletes wear only footwear bearing the company’s ubiquitous logo. The players receive enough shoes to carry them through the season, allowing them to serve largely as free human billboards.

“All this does,” Gabe Feldman, who directs Tulane’s sports law program, said of Williamson’s injury, “is put a magnifying glass on an issue that has existed for a long time.”

Williamson has not commented.

Nike stock closed down Thursday by 1.05 percent, as the world wondered how a sneaker could split so badly in the middle of a game.

The answer remains a puzzle even to experts. James Gilbert, an orthopedic surgeon who worked with Duke athletics in the 1990s, said he had seen shoes fall apart similarly on soccer players, but never on the hardwood.

“I think it’s a product failure,” Gilbert said. “I’ve never seen that. I had no idea that that happens.”

In a statement Wednesday night, Nike said: “We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery. The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance.” The statement called the shoe explosion “an isolated occurrence,” though in 2015, the Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge won the Berlin Marathon even as the insoles of his Nike shoes slipped out of place.

Williamson, who has a mild knee sprain, will probably be sidelined for one to two weeks, and then continue being the favorite to become the No. 1 overall pick in the N.B.A. draft in June. By then, he will probably already be a millionaire, because of the endorsement deals he can sign when he ends his college career. For now, he is an N.C.A.A. amateur.

Sneaker companies first became deeply involved with college athletics in the late 1970s, when an enterprising Nike executive, Sonny Vaccaro, arranged for several prominent coaches, such as John Thompson of Georgetown and Jerry Tarkanian of Nevada-Las Vegas, to receive money in exchange for outfitting their players in the company’s shoes. Starting in the late 1980s, Nike began to sign deals that covered all of a university’s teams.

“Now we see the kids wearing the shoes and selling the product all over the world — and the kids never got anything,” Vaccaro, who left Nike years ago, said Thursday. “The money has served the same people, except for the most important ones.”

A decision in a federal class-action lawsuit challenging N.C.A.A. restrictions on compensation is expected any day.

Standout basketball players were squeezed further in 2006, when the N.B.A. barred talented teenagers from following in the footsteps of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James by entering the league straight out of high school.

Then, in September 2017, federal prosecutors in New York’s Southern District revealed more of the chasm between college basketball players, who can receive only scholarships and related costs of being on campus, and the administrators and coaches who reap the benefits of the revenue the athletes generate for their colleges, conferences and the N.C.A.A. itself. The men’s basketball tournament yields about $1 billion a year for the television rights.

In three complaints filed in United States District Court in New York, prosecutors accused roughly a dozen assistant coaches, middlemen and employees of Adidas of plotting to funnel money to players’ families in exchange for pledges that the athletes, among other things, would play for certain universities and sign with Adidas once they began their pro careers. The scandal led to the firing of a Hall of Fame coach, Rick Pitino of the University of Louisville, and has netted three convictions, including of Adidas’s former director of global sports marketing.

The transactions outlined by the complaints are practically the modus operandi at many top basketball programs, documents and testimony in the legal case suggested. Wiretaps revealed suspects describing at least one Adidas rival engaging in similar practices. Documents from the case reported by Yahoo Sports last year indicated that former top players at dozens of prominent programs — including Duke — had been on the payroll of an aspiring agent who has since been convicted of fraud.

Duke did not reply to requests for comment Thursday.

The specifics of Duke’s deal with Nike, which the two sides have extended through 2027, are not publicly known. As a private university, Duke is not obligated to reveal the terms.

But a look at Nike deals with similar universities that are public offer some indication of how the contracts work.

Nike’s deal with North Carolina, for instance, will give the university more than $90 million in cash and merchandise over 10 years. Nike also signed personal contracts with a number of North Carolina coaches: Roy Williams, the men’s basketball coach, will receive an average of $300,000 a year over the life of the 10-year agreement.

Contracts generally state that Nike is not liable for injuries suffered by athletes wearing its products. The contracts also require every player to wear the company’s shoes unless a medical condition makes Nike footwear unsuitable. A player might, as stipulated in Nike’s deal with the University of Michigan, be required to make himself available for examination by Nike or a local podiatrist before using a shoe made by another company.

It is not known why Williamson wore the particular Nike model that tore on Wednesday. It was a Nike “signature shoe,” a term for a style endorsed by a specific athlete — in this case, the N.B.A. star Paul George, who plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

What makes Williamson so compelling is the same thing that might make a shoe unable to contain him. He combines size and speed with strength and agility in the manner of James, who during a day off this month went to Charlottesville, Va., to see Williamson and the Blue Devils take on Virginia. Though Williamson weighs 285 pounds, at times he seems like the fastest player on the court.

“When you’re dealing with some of these athletes who are getting quicker, stronger, faster, you’ve got to consider some of that,” said Gilbert, the orthopedist.

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