Earlier last week, another edition of what has been called “the Greatest Rivalry in All of Sports” took place in Durham, North Carolina — a college basketball game between Duke University and the University of North Carolina, two schools separated by a mere 8 miles.
The hype surrounding this year’s game was decidedly higher than in years past. President Obama was there, as were many other celebrities, sitting in the types of seats which were reselling for more than tickets to the Super Bowl. The reason for this essentially boiled down to one person — Duke standout Zion Williamson: the best player in college basketball, human highlight reel, and the presumptive #1 overall pick in next year’s NBA draft.
Seconds into the game, Zion — one name, like Cher or Beyonce — got the ball; the crowd bounced up and down with anticipation. He took one dribble, then a second. On the third dribble he planted his left leg and the shoe on his foot tore apart like one of Hulk Hogan’s old t-shirts. His leg buckled and Zion collapsed to the court, grimacing and clutching his knee.
Unfortunately, this is not a basketball blog; the event and its ramifications are not as important here as the metaphor the event provides — in this case, perhaps a perfect microcosm of the country as a whole.
This week, the President loudly proclaimed at a rally of his supporters, “America will never be a socialist country!”
Gather NBA owners together with the higher-ups of college athletics, and it’s likely that room full of billionaires and millionaires would agree with the President’s statement in near or total uniformity. Of course, their opinion would be based on a consciously narrow definition. Ask the President if he supports the military and he will certainly say yes, at which point, one might be inclined to mention that the US military is the world’s largest socialist program.
But further, and more importantly, whether President, billionaire, or basketball bigwig, there is usually overt support for a certain type of “socialism,” what Martin Luther King called “socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor.” That type of “socialism” is great!
NBA owners are happy to have the community collectively pay for new arenas and stadiums, just as colleges are happy to accept government funding, just as big companies are happy to receive enormous tax breaks, that is, a little bit of money out of everyone’s pocket; when the banks crashed, everybody paid to save them.
This is why Zion Williamson was even on the court against North Carolina in the first place.
See, Zion is so good at basketball that had he entered the NBA draft last year, he would certainly have been a high pick. Except he didn’t enter the NBA draft last year; not because of his overwhelming desire to partake in college athletics, because the NBA has a rule which stipulates athletes coming out of high school must wait a year, that is, play a year of college basketball, before entering the NBA’s professional ranks.
The top five draft picks from 2018 will make an average of $6 million this year, as part of contracts guaranteeing them many tens of millions of dollars. In other words, Zion Williamson has a skill which almost no one in the world has, making it worth millions of dollars in our current system, except he is obligated to provide this skill for free. A better way to say it might be that Zion Williamson is obligated to pay millions of dollars out of his own pocket, since that is, in effect, what he is doing. But to who?
Well, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is a billion dollar industry — the “March Madness” basketball tournament generates almost a billion dollars on its own — the NBA is worth tens of billions and continues to rake in record profits, and Duke University has made many millions of dollars off its basketball program. That doesn’t even mention the sports networks, which drove ratings with ‘Zion updates’ all day, every day for a week (that would be the networks which recently signed an $8.8 billion deal to broadcast college basketball games).
Zion Williamson’s mere presence in the Duke/Carolina game is a metaphor for ‘socialism for the rich,’ for a system in which a person from the bottom effectively gives money out of their own pocket to prop up those at the top.
But there’s more, the second part of the quote: ‘rugged individualism’ — what MLK also called “rugged free-market capitalism” — ‘for the poor.’
The problem, in Zion’s case, is that after he is done providing his unique skill for free, and for the benefit of none but the power structure around him, he is prevented from bringing his individualism to a free market. He is prohibited from making paid appearances, or, while his school sells jerseys with his number on it, making money from merchandise; he cannot sign a sponsorship deal, or, as ESPN runs advertisements with his face for their own coverage, appear in commercials; he can’t even set up a picnic table in the quad at Duke and write his name on a piece of paper for anyone who’ll give him 20 bucks.
“Rugged” individualism, in this case, is perhaps better described as ‘restricted’ individualism, that is, the opposite of a free market. And it goes far beyond Zion.
Picture attempting to bring your individualism to a free market in a community without access to education or job opportunities; picture plotting mobility while working at a job that doesn’t pay a living wage, or innovating without the backing of generational wealth; think about attempting to enter the free market if you are or have been in prison for a non-violent drug offense, or are growing up as one of the 20% of American children who face hunger and inadequate access to food every year.
It’s interesting to think about. In this late model of capitalism, there aren’t really any capitalists left. The rich exist bloated in comfortable enclaves of socialism, while the rest are not even afforded a chance at individualism on a free market, their access restricted and tightly controlled.
Of course, for Zion Williamson, there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, decidedly not true for most people. Even with his year obligation in college, his monetary contribution to millionaires and billionaires out of his own pocket, he will join the professional ranks as a generational talent next year, where he will certainly make millions of dollars.
Unless he blows his knee out in a college game first …
Which brings us to the other actor in the Zion story — the shoe; the one that disintegrated 36 seconds in to the marquee game of the season.
First things first: Duke University has a sponsorship deal with Nike, meaning all players on the basketball team are obligated to wear Nikes. Zion did not have any input on the shoes which would hold up his 6’7 285-pound frame, to say nothing of his professional basketball dreams.
Really, Nike is the perfect character to have in this story, metaphorically speaking. They are one of the preeminent US companies on earth, one of the premier representatives of Americana — picture someone across the world indulging in American culture; they are probably drinking a Coca Cola, eating a Big Mac, and wearing Nikes.
But Nike is also an accurate representation of many large American businesses.
Founded in Eugene in 1964 by two University of Oregon students, Nike grew into an industry leader in the 1970s by following a strategy of extreme outsourcing — whereas only 4% of US footwear was imported in 1964, today that number is 98%. Over the years, Nike not only dismantled an American industry, but was constantly exposed and reprimanded for gross human rights abuses as the company grew into “a symbol of global sweatshop labor.”
In the world of idyllic cliches — a world where “free market capitalism”is a thing — capitalist American businesses provide the best quality goods and services possible at the lowest possible cost to the consumer; this, the result of the competition the ‘free market’ is supposed to drive.
Nike, however, represents a different model, one in which a company endeavors simply to make as much money as possible, no matter the method or destruction caused. For decades Nike has sought to increase profits by lowering costs, seeking out cheaper (and more oppressed) labor and cheaper materials.
Which brings us back to Zion, running up the court wearing decades of cut costs and cut corners on his feet.
The end of the story is that Zion is not badly hurt; he will likely still make his millions.
But the real end of the story is that Zion represents a system in which people at the bottom assume all the risk and pay out of their own pockets to prop up the rich, a system where a shoe produced by a company like Nike falls apart like we used to accuse Russian bots of doing. It is the perfect metaphor for the country. After decades of extreme socialism for the rich, and restricted individualism for the rest, the country, like the shoe under stress, is coming apart at the seams.