On February 20, the basketball world looked on in disbelief as Zion Williamson grasped his knee, writhing in pain. To his side were tattered remains of his left sneaker, split open from the force of his pivot.  Zion Williamson is not new to the spotlight; his highlight reels and dunks have been a constant in the AAU circuit, as several fans looked on in anticipation waiting for his NBA debut.

Article X, Section 1(b)(i) of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement requires NBA hopefuls to be at least 19-years old before they may enter the April draft. The original NBA system existed largely in part from the Supreme Court’s 1971 decision in Haywood v. National Basketball Ass’n, which barred the NBA from requiring players to stay in college for four years before entering the draft. For 44 years, players entered the NBA straight from high school, until the 2005 collective bargaining agreement raised the age back up to 19.

This circles back to Zion Williamson, and the NBA in general. It defies logic to force individuals to engage in the façade of playing for a college for one year before leaving for the NBA.  The NBA and NCAA product suffer, as players come into the NBA needing severe training in their fundamentals, and college players lose interest in the game, as their concern is (rightfully so) not on the sport, but on their future. Thankfully, the NBA has realized this and proposed lowering the age limit to 18, which removes the “one-and-done” requirement. For Zion Williamson though, the question remains: if the injury turns out to be so great that his professional career was cut short due to the defective shoe, can he be compensated for that injury?

Since the injury occurred in North Carolina, North Carolina law is very likely to apply. North Carolina requires the plaintiff, in a products liability case, prove (1) the product was defective at the time it left the control of the defendant, (2) the defect was the result of defendant’s negligence, and (3) the defect proximately caused plaintiff damage. Moreover, under a claim based on negligence, a manufacturer has the duty to use reasonable care throughout the manufacturing process, including making sure the product is free of any potentially dangerous defect in manufacturing or design. If the injury stretches out beyond the estimated timetable, Zion likely has a claim against Nike under a theory of products liability. Shoes are meant to withstand the pressures of basketball games, especially if the shoes are marketed for that reason. That the shoe exploded likely constitutes a dangerous defect.

The fact that this is a conversation recognizes the uneasy tension crafted in the 2005 (and 2011) collective bargaining agreements. Due to the distrust created from the 1999 lockout, players and league officials were negotiating from a standpoint of distrust. The current regime is the realization of that distrust. The current CBA expires in 2022, with players and league management set to negotiate on several key points concerning both the league and entry into the league. While the NBA has proposed to lower the age gap to 18, that would only exacerbate what some see as the weakening of core fundamental skills, such as free throw shooting and defense. Perhaps the NBA should look to the MLB in this arena, and consider adopting their system, using the G-League as a minor league system. Hence, instead of forcing players to spend a year in school, unpaid and open to injury, the next CBA should use the G-League as a one-year minor league system, so that the players can acclimate to an NBA lifestyle while still being compensated for their time and effort. From a legal standpoint, this would do little to change the potential for injured players, like Zion, to bring a lawsuit for injuries incurred. Yet, half the reason such a suit would even exist is because of the potential future to play in the NBA.  By using the G-League as a minor league system, Zion (and others) would already be in the NBA, which would very likely reduce the incentive to bring a lawsuit against the biggest manufacturers of players’ shoes. Moreover, the league and the shoe companies could negotiate directly, instead of forcing the players to bring their own suits, while others free ride on the gains. Imagine if this occurred to a “one-and-done” player not as readily on the NBA radar, the uproar would be considerably lessened, but the injury remains the same. By either lowering the age requirement, or, more beneficially, incentivizing teams to use the G-League as a minor league system, these questions would be resolved with less ambiguity and less apprehension.

— Aria Guilani

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