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Zion Williamson injury wearing Nike shoe rips through business of basketball

Duke star's Nike shoe blows out

Soon after Zion Williamson's basketball shoe ripped apart, Nike's stock price took a billion-dollar hit. The freak injury during one of the college basketball season's marquee games immediately sparked debates about everything from the shoe manufacturer to insurance issues and whether the likely NBA lottery pick from Duke University should risk his professional future by continuing to play for the top-ranked-for-now Blue Devils.

Williamson is day to day with a mild right knee sprain and is progressing as expected, team spokesman Mike DeGeorge said Thursday night.

But by Thursday morning, Nike, which manufactured the shoes Williamson was wearing, was also feeling the impact of the injury. The company's stock closed down 89 cents at $83.95 on Thursday, for a $1.1 billion drop in market value, as the sportswear manufacturer became the target of ridicule on social media. A spokesman said Nike has begun an investigation into what it called an "isolated" event.

"Shoes have failed before, but not as visibly," said Matt Powell, a senior industry adviser for sports for the NPD Group, a market research firm.

North Carolina v Duke
Zion Williamson, #1 of the Duke Blue Devils, reacts after falling as his shoe breaks against Luke Maye, #32 of the North Carolina Tar Heels, during their game on February 20, 2019, in Durham, North Carolina. SL / Getty Images

The mishap is "a major brand failure" for multiple reasons, brand expert Mario Natarelli, managing partner at the MBLM agency in New York, told CBS News. Beyond injuring the man many see as the nation's top college basketball player, the incident was a "very visible shoe structure failure for a company committed to performance and technology of its products," Natarelli said.

A darker side to the story is how it highlights the cash sponsors like Nike pay schools that then force athletes to wear a particular brand, noted Natarelli. Nike is Duke's exclusive supplier of uniforms, shoes and apparel, and has been since 1992, ESPN reported. 

"Again, let's remember all the money that went into this game ... and these players get none of it, Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell tweeted on Wednesday. "And now Zion gets hurt ... something has to change."

Still, as long as the case remains isolated, Nike is likely to recover and find ways to reverse or put a positive spin on the episode, Natarelli said. As he put it: "It is hard to imagine Nike won't create a future shoe deal with Zion Williamson once he's pro and the headline writes itself -- we've invented a new shoe to contain the force that is Zion Williamson."

Playing before a crowd littered with celebrities — from Spike Lee to former President Barack Obama — Williamson was hurt in the opening minute of the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels as his Nike PG 2.5, from Oklahoma City Thunder star Paul George's signature sneaker line, tore apart. Williamson wears that model frequently during games and hadn't had any obvious problems.

The 280-pound Williamson is one of the most powerful players in the game, and he tried to plant with his left foot as his right foot was slipping. The blue rubber sole ripped loose from the white shoe and Williamson's foot came all the way through the large gap. He ended up in an awkward-almost-split, clutching the back of his right knee. He walked to the bench and a few minutes later headed to the locker room, leaving the wrecked shoe under his chair.

George said Thursday that he has talked with Nike to see what went wrong and what happened to the shoe.

"It hasn't happened to me as long as I've been in this shoe," George said. "We've made three generations, going on four now of my shoe, of being successful. So I didn't necessarily feel any way about that part — the negative part of it. My only concern was for Zion, honestly."

Since Duke is a Nike-sponsored school, Williamson has his choice of that company's footwear.

"I've seen guys bust through shoes but not sprain their knee," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He's gone down a couple times where he's slipped and saved the ball. That's what I thought happened. He goes so fast that maybe if there's something slippery, that happened."

The injury also set off a fresh round of debate about whether Williamson — the possible No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft, should he leave Duke after his freshman season — would be wise to end his college season in an attempt to avoid an injury that could jeopardize his pro career. NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen made the case for it a month ago, saying on ESPN that "I would shut it down."

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Asked to respond on Feb. 5 to those comments, Williamson turned to his locker room sidekick, walk-on Mike Buckmire, and asked, "Buck, would you hate me if I shut down the season?

"I couldn't do that to my teammates," Williamson continued. "Again, thank you for, like, seeing the confidence in me and the type of player I can become. But I love college too much to stop playing. I wouldn't give this up."

Now that he's actually hurt, it's unknown if his feelings have changed.

It's also unclear, if he decides to continue his college career, whether Williamson has an insurance policy to protect him in case of injury like many other elite college athletes have purchased.

DeGeorge on Thursday could not confirm a report by Action Network that Williamson had an $8 million loss of value policy written by Winston-Salem-based International Specialty Insurance that would pay out if he slipped past the 16th pick in this June's draft. Officials at ISI did not return telephone and email messages Thursday.

Loss of value polices are not offered by the NCAA, but the governing body does offer disability insurance.

Spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said the NCAA allows schools to purchase loss of value policies on a player's behalf. She added that the NCAA also facilitates a disability insurance program for players in five sports, including men's basketball, in which athletes can purchase policies with preapproved financing to protect against future loss of earnings due to injuries suffered in college. Duke spokesman Jon Jackson said the university does provide the resource for athletes to purchase policies in limited cases but declined to comment on specific instances.

There are no NCAA restrictions on how much insurance a player can purchase, or if the player wants both types of policies, Osburn said.

A few years ago, former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore took out a disability insurance policy. He purchased a $1.8 million insurance policy through the NCAA program. Lattimore had a clause in his policy that it would pay out if he did not play four NFL games. Lattimore never played in an NFL game but only received about $270,000 from the policy, in part because he did get a signing bonus when he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the fourth round.

He purchased the policy prior to his sophomore season in 2011 then renewed it the following year. That season he dislocated his knee in a game suffered several torn ligaments when he was tackled. Lattimore currently works as the director of football player development at his alma mater.

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