The Duke Fan Who Can’t Enjoy Zion Williamson

How empathy for victims of unfair labor practices affect this fan's consumption of sports.

If ever there was a time to enjoy Duke University men’s basketball, that time is now. Never has Duke nor any other program had a player on its roster with less to gain and more to lose from playing college basketball. And that is why I can’t enjoy Zion Williamson.

The Making of a Duke Fan

Like most sports fandom, my allegiance to Duke is a result of indoctrination. Before the Blue Devils were playing most of their games on ESPN, my aunt in North Carolina fell in love with Duke University men’s head basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. She sent me a postcard of Duke Forest, and before I had ever seen the men’s basketball team play, I knew I wanted to attend the university. Regardless of what I’d decide to be when I grew up, Duke offered an elite academic program to prepare me for it. That’s what I remember researching first. I was an odd five-year-old. 

As I became aware of and intrigued by sports in the early ’90s, I hopped on happy bandwagons driven by people I found interesting. Basketball was already my favorite sport to play, and, like many kids, I jumped on the Chicago Bulls’ bandwagon because I wanted to be like Mike. When I discovered that most of the Bulls’ games were included in our basic cable package, I became an every-game worshipper of His Airness, watching Chicago win its first title in 1991.

Another ride I couldn’t resist was pushed by a pudgy center fielder and dragged by Jack Morris to the 1991 World Series Championship. I’m pretty certain I was pulling for the Twins after Kirby Puckett’s heroics in Game 6, so even if the Braves won Game 7, they couldn’t win my allegiance. The man shaped like my dad, robbing the Braves of hits and slugging walkoff homers, was loveable as a winner and mostly as a loser (though maybe not so loveable after sexual harassment in a women’s public restroom was alleged).

- Advertisement - 

But I followed no sport or team as vehemently as Blue Devil basketball. Not long before the 1991 baseball season began, Christian Laettner’s “Shot Heard ’round the World” injected me with blue blood I thought would flow through my veins for life. While the Minnesota Twins moved back into the MLB basement, the Blue Devils and Bulls were dependable producers of entertainment and joy. The Bulls provided a diversion from the Twins’ swift fall from contention, and the Blue Devils bridged the gap between the Minnesota Vikings’ annual ineptitude and the Twins’ impending ineptitude. I embraced the Dark Side because I was desperate to win, and Duke rarely lost.

Why I Can’t Enjoy Zion Williamson

During a season that’s seen the Blue Devils play more nationally televised games than ever, featuring a dynamic player like none other in history, I’ve watched the fewest Duke games I ever have in a single season. I was on board at the beginning of the season, in awe of Zion’s dunks, albeit against the worst competition I’d ever seen Duke play. The Blue Devils always play a lot of games on ESPN, even early in the season, because they tend to open play against some of the top teams in the country before settling into a comfortable, non-conference schedule of cream puffs. Now even those games were on ESPN and yet, somehow, someone who wants dunks to be worth three points suffered from dunk fatigue.

Of course, I tuned in for Duke/UNC: Part I…until Zion changed direction so forcefully he single-footedly made people suspect the sweatshop craftsmanship of Nike sneakers for the first time. The failure of his equipment naturally led to the construction of conspiracy theories and calls for him to sit out the rest of the season to avoid risking further injury and the financial security awaiting a healthy, top-overall NBA Draft pick. I was one of those calling for him to pull a Kyrie, playing just enough in the NCAA Tournament to prove he’s healthy. I didn’t much care what they did after losing their first game. If they weren’t going undefeated, none of it mattered until March. But then March came, and Zion returned, and I still can’t enjoy him.

I blew off the entirety of the ACC Tournament, unheard-of in the history of my Duke fandom, to watch women’s professional hockey and see a band covering songs by The Doors, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd. I still haven’t seen highlights of Zion’s performances. Even when I attempted to, I ended up rewatching the videos I recorded of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) Isobel Cup Final. Those athletes aren’t paid what they deserve either, but they are paid.

Back when I wanted to attend Duke University, a scholarship covering the costs of an almost quarter-million-dollar education seemed like a reasonable deal for a student-athlete. It still is for most of them, because NCAA Division I football and basketball players literally fund all the other sports programs at colleges and universities. Lacrosse, the only sport more expensive (and whiter) than hockey, exists as a college sport because football and basketball players allow it. And the people most responsible for raising the revenues that fund the “white” collegiate sports tend to be anything but white.

The majority of college football and men’s basketball players are non-white. As of 2018, 61 percent of NCAA men’s basketball players and 53 percent of college football players self-identified as non-white. And while non-white participation in men’s basketball and football has increased 10 and 12 percent, respectively, since 2008, the percentage of non-white head coaches has remained stagnant. White males filled 81 percent of men’s college basketball coaching jobs in 2008. A decade later, white males still held 80 percent of NCAA men’s basketball head coaching jobs. Non-white assistant coaches increased just five percent over the decade.

NCAA football is even more exclusive, with 86 percent of head coaching jobs going to white men in 2018—down from 89 percent in 2008. Non-white offensive coordinators increased just two percent in the 10 years since 88 percent of those jobs went to white men. Defensive coordinator positions went to white men at a 74-percent rate in 2018—down just four percent in a decade. And 63 percent of assistant coaching positions in NCAA football went to white men in 2018—a decrease of eight percent since 2008.

Subconscious Sentimentality and Sports Consumption

I didn’t actively ignore Duke’s 2018-19 season. I made no decision to abandon Duke. I’m simply less interested in consuming their product. Something similar happened when the NFL blackballed Colin Kaepernick. I watched more NFL games after Kaepernick protested racial injustices during the national anthem. I wanted to see who took a knee, but I’d usually keep the game on as I cooked or cleaned or did something else. Now, I barely pay attention or outright ignore the one Vikings game a week I watched before Kaepernick’s protests began.

While Duke men’s basketball has been and remains the single greatest basketball product the NCAA has to offer, it’s still an NCAA product. And the NCAA exists to enforce rules designed to preserve its unpaid labor pool of mostly Black men and distribute the profits to support unsustainable, whiter college sports. In turn, already-rich white kids gain yet another economic advantage on top of those that persist since slavery. William C. Rhoden even wrote about how Black participation in college sports reflect many of the features of slavery

My fandom is no longer misinformed, ignorant fanaticism fueled by Duke dogma preached by an idolic coach and his Blue Devil disciples. “Coach K cares,” I keep hearing. But if he truly cares about the well-being of his players, how can he profit from their performances guilt-free? Does Coach K think he’s providing almost $9 million worth of instruction and experience to his players? He’s certainly deserving of the second-highest collegiate coaching salary, but at that rate of pay?

Coach K’s instruction might very well be worth it to some Duke students and even more parents. Zion will probably say playing for Coach K was worth it…as long as his career isn’t derailed by injuries sustained while playing for him. Zion will likely credit Coach K for making him a better basketball player and man, and credit Duke for making him more marketable which, in turn, increased his earning potential. But the $75,370-or-so scholarship Zion received to attend Duke University for a year is not fair payment for services rendered, nor does it cost Coach K or anyone else anything at all. ESPN aired more Duke games because of Zion, yet he is not a beneficiary. In fact, he doesn’t even own the rights to his own name. Only the NCAA can profit from that, too.

All of this is a big problem for men’s college basketball. With G League salaries set to increase next season and the NBA officially proposing to lower the draft-eligible age from 19 to 18, there will be fewer and fewer free backs upon which the NCAA can profit. The quality of gameplay will suffer, as will revenues, and, eventually, coaches’ salaries. So the only way for coaches to preserve their future earning potential is by giving away some of their present earnings.

How College Coaches Can Pay Players Right Now

If Coach K truly cared about his players and the preservation of college basketball as a profitable product that funds unprofitable ones, he’d use his immense influence and affluence to change collegiate athletics to better serve college athletes. Instead of slimy sports boosters sliding sacks of cash to top football and basketball recruits, consider this alternative that doesn’t violate NCAA rules:

“Now, Zion. You understand the value of what I can teach you on and off the court, and if you come to Duke you’ll benefit from more than just one season of coaching. I won’t just be your coach for one season. I’ll be there for you like family for as long as I’m around.”

“Oh, I get it, Coach, and I understand the value of being coached by the best and appreciate the attention you give players. I just don’t know if I need the best to prepare me for the NBA.”

“You probably don’t, but my job isn’t to simply prepare you for the NBA. My job is to make you the best man you can be, and that is something you won’t find in the G League or playing professionally abroad. ”

“But there’s plenty I can earn.”

“Well, if you consider the $35,000 G League salary to be plenty.”

“I’m not talking about the salary, Coach. I’m talking about endorsement deals, profiting from my name instead of honkies who are already rich using my body to pay their salaries and give themselves bonuses because of the ratings boost from my performance. Sound familiar?”

“But at Duke your performances will be broadcast live on ESPN almost every night. No other league or team, not even in the NBA, can offer that much visibility.”

“I dunno, Coach. ESPN could start airing more G League games because of me.”

“But you’ll be such a better player, and so much more marketable, having played a season at Duke. The competition on our schedule is the toughest you can get outside the NBA, and I cannot stress enough how rewarding an experience it is to chase a National Championship.”

“I’m sure you’re right, but what if I get hurt playing for nothing? I can’t have my career end with an $8-million insurance claim before it even begins.”

“You’ll have a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, Zion. The scholarship I’m offering is for four years, and with room and board, is valued at more than $300,000. The education you’ll receive at Duke almost assures you a career in the field of your choice.”

“My field of choice is basketball, Coach. Duke jeopardizes that. And that scholarship doesn’t cost you or anybody anything. It costs only the unpaid college players who raised that revenue. I’m the only one taking a risk, so if I’m going to risk my career playing for you, you need to risk something, too.”

“Zion, you know I can’t pay you to play.”

“I’m not asking you to pay me. I’m asking you to invest in my future. In fact, I’m asking you to invest in the futures of all your players.”

“The NCAA won’t care what you call it, Zion.”

“They might not care, but it’s going to matter when we tell them about it.”

“You want to tell the NCAA about a rules violation?”

“It’s not a violation, Coach. It’s a way to show you care about your players and the game, and a way you can use your power to preserve the quality of the college basketball product. You might be the best coach in college basketball history, but imagine being the man responsible for college players being paid a fair share of the profits they create.”

“I’m listening.”

“So you take a smidge of your $9 million salary for next season and deposit it in a trust. Only you and your players can withdraw funds in an amount you determine, and only after their amateur status ends. It would just be a trust fund for players falling on hard times. You can roll over the funding for future generations, and the less money that’s withdrawn, the better you and the university look. And maybe it starts a trend, or the NCAA finally changes its rules. Whatever happens, you will have left a lasting legacy that’ll grow long after you’re gone.”

The first coach who does such a thing will be my new favorite coach. And if there’s a coach in collegiate sports with a better reputation and more power to direct the NCAA’s attention and money where it ought to be, Coach K is that coach. Until then, I can’t enjoy Zion…much.

Anthony Varriano
Anthony Varriano
Anthony Varriano is a writer, editor, and podcast host at Grandstand Central. He spent six years as a newspaper journalist, columnist, sportswriter, and photographer. He is also editor of Go Gonzo Journal and host of Foul Play-by-Play, a podcast about the week’s cheats, cheap shots, and alleged criminals in sports.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


The Latest

cupping therapy

What is “cupping therapy” and does it actually work?

Cupping therapy came into the public eye when Olympian Michael Phelps was seen with circular bruise-type marks on his scapula (shoulder blade), neck, and shoulder. 

U.S. Women’s Soccer Wouldn’t Be Where it is Today without Jill Ellis

Jill Ellis has the most successful coaching career in all soccer history and after two consecutive World Cups, she's saying goodbye.
wendy hilliard gymnastics

Wendy Hilliard On Making Gymnastics Accessible

Plus, the meaning of life after sports.

The Rise of Major League Eating, America’s New Favorite Pastime

Major League Eating made competitive eating a successful, nation-wide sport and it all trails back to a hot dog eating contest from way back when.
Art Shamsky Amazin' Mets

Art Shamsky on Aging and the Amazin’ Mets

Plus, his thoughts on the Hall and missing out on the Big Red Machine.
The Saints Entertainment All-Stars

The Circus Surrounding Baseball in St. Paul

Don't be surprised if the Saints' Entertainment All-Stars steal the show at the 2019 American Association All-Star Game at CHS Field in St. Paul.

get the latest stories about the intersection of sports with money, power and media.