Zion Williamson’s Nike-Shoe Implosion: Scams and Player Safety

Thirty seconds into Duke’s game with UNC last night, Duke freshman star Zion Williamson went down with a knee injury. But this was no run-of-the-mill knee injury: Williamson’s Nike PG 2.5 PE shoe just blew up: the video showed that the right sole separated entirely from the upper.

The incident illustrates a recurring theme in college sports: NCAA amateurism creates, for D-1 football and basketball players, an unacceptable risk to player safety and long-term career earnings. It also highlights the role of NCAA and apparel-supplier scams used to fool the public about the economic realities behind such apparel-supply arrangements.
Why was Williamson, for example — a player with a career earning potential in the $100s of millions — wearing a cheap $110 shoe?

Williamson’s Job as a Nike-Promoter

“Contract Factory Partners” and “Contract Promoter Partners”: Nike makes nothing, and owns no factories. It is a for-profit middleman. Two primary categories of entities produce for Nike: a) “Contract Factory Partners.” [Nike’s own label.] These are the many factories, owned by non-Nike, foreign entities, with whom Nike contracts to produce the shoes and apparel; b) Contract Promoter Partners [my label]. These are the many colleges and universities, publicly or privately owned, with whom Nike contracts to produce the advertising for the shoes and apparel Nike distributes.

Each of these Partners employ their own workforce. Factory Partners tend to employ underpaid foreign workers, so that Nike per-shoe costs remain artificially low; Promoter Partners employ their own workforce, using unpaid ‘amateur’ college players, so that Nike per-shoe advertising costs remain artificially low. (Nike use of these intermediary ‘partners’ also shields the company from liability for employment or product-defect claims.)
Two falsehoods — scams — operate to hide the reality of these commercial arrangements, by fooling the public consumer of shoes and apparel, and college sports commerce.

Scam #1: Nike actually makes the product

Scam #2: Nike Merely ‘Supports’ Duke, with ‘Free’ Product

Scam #2 uses a falsehood upon which both Nike and its Promoter Partners — the universities — heavily rely: that shoes and apparel are provided by Nike to the school for ‘free,’ because Nike merely wants to “support” the school. See, for example, this excerpt from UNC’s 2018 Nike contract. (Duke won’t release its presumably similar contract.):

“Nike desires to support the [UNC] Intercollegiate athletic programs by supplying athletic footwear and other products for use in its Intercollegiate athletic programs.”

This is like telling your friend that you bought a new $50,000 pickup truck because you ‘desire to support’ the truck dealer. Nike purchases, for substantial sums (including both cash and in-kind payment), extraordinarily valuable promotion services offered by each school. This is a purely commercial transaction, and Nike’s shoes and apparel are not ‘free’ to the school, because the school, in return, must provide promotion services.
But there’s more to it than that, because the transaction between Nike and Duke (or other schools) employs two other scams to conceal the essence of the Contract Factory and Contract Promoter commercial arrangements:

Scam #3: The School is Selling its Promotional Services

Duke does not sell its promotional services to Nike. Instead, the school is selling-off a major, cherished piece of its NCAA-defined ‘amateurism’: its Institutional Control over the player. The school doesn’t provide promotional services; the player does. But the school controls that player — and it is that control which Duke sells-off, when it enters into its Promoter-Partner contract with Nike.

Scam #4: The Coach Provides Honest Services for His Nike-Pay

The Coach purports to provide services for the pay he receives from Nike (or the school’s contract with Nike). Sure, his services are ‘fluffed-up’ by both parties to the contract, using lofty terms like “ambassador for the brand,” or “advisor” — or even camp counselor (Nike and coaches run summer camps.) This is nonsense, because the coach is being paid to also sell-off (and get rich from) the same thing which the school sells-off: his control over the player. (The 2014 contract between Adidas and former head coach Pitino, for example, mandated that he “require” his players to wear Adidas; in 2017, the Michigan basketball player was provided with Nike ‘travel’ shoes, only after affirming this statement: “I understand that this is a team-issued travel shoe that I am expected to wear.”) Nike has even built a ‘Coach K’ fitness center at its Oregon headquarters, presumably to insure that Duke and Coach K will stick with Nike — and that Coach K will continue to require that his players wear Nike.
So Zion Williamson is required to wear the Nike shoe handed to him by his ‘employer’ — Duke — which has previously sold its control over him to Nike. And Nike wants him to wear a relatively cheap shoe, which would be worn by the average, non-superstar kid or consumer, so that the average consumer will buy that shoe. This is like requiring Barnum and Bailey’s best trapeze artist to perform on a back-yard swing set. Every shoe worn by Zion Williamson (or other D-1 basketball or football player) should be the best basketball shoe which can be made — and subject to, before use, thorough, relentless — and transparent — product safety-and-fitness testing. Zion’s shoes apparently weren’t.
Duke, Coach K, and Nike have all, without excuse, other than conflicting financial self-interest, failed Zion Williamson — and unnecessarily endangered, once again, the health, safety, and career earning-prospects of the very D-1 basketball or football player who provides the promotion Nike cherishes.

Mandate that Shoe Companies Provide Loss-of-Value Coverage for D-1 Basketball and Football Players

So what can be quickly and easily done? First, remember that, no matter what silliness you’re told, NCAA amateurism is not a purely ‘no-pay’ amateurism. The NCAA bylaws say that any player benefit, pay, or special arrangement is perfectly fine if “expressly authorized by NCAA legislation.” The NCAA can vote to allow each player to be provided with candelabras, or pickup trucks, if it wants.
Zion Williamson got hurt not just while wearing a shoe provided for the commercial profit others enjoyed: the cause of Williamson’s injury was the shoe. He provides the promotion, with no pay; he should not be required to assume all the cost of injury — particularly where Nike’s shoe apparently caused it. NCAA legislation should be immediately passed to require that any D-1 school shoe or apparel contract include a provision mandating that the shoe or apparel provider fund loss-of-value insurance for any basketball or football player. What’s so difficult about that?

Copyright William Wilson 2019

About brewonsouthu

lawyer, with interest in college sports and NCAA oversight and decisions, and sports generally.
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