We had two sports events last week that may well provide some unique insights for the compliance practitioner. The first sports issue was that of the exploding shoe of Duke basketball player Zion Williamson. The second event was New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s arrest for solicitation in Florida, which I will consider tomorrow.

Only 33 seconds into Duke’s game on national television against its arch rival the University of North Carolina (UNC), Williamson, the 18-year-old freshman who is clearly the best player in college basketball this year and the clear favorite to be the NBA’s first pick in the draft this year, strained his knee in an incident.

Marc Tracy, writing in the New York Times (NYT), said, “In the first minute of top-ranked Duke’s game against its archrival, eighth-ranked North Carolina, Williamson, a 6-foot-7, 285-pound forward whose game is a blend of quickness and power, pivoted with the ball near the free-throw line. As he planted a foot to reverse direction, his left sneaker collapsed and tore apart from the sheer torque of the move.” As a result of the Nike shoe failure, Williamson sustained a Level 1 knee sprain. He left the game and did not return and at this point it is not known if he will return to play again for Duke this year. Other than a single tepid Press Release, stating that it was “concerned”, wishing Williamson a speedy recovery and they were “working to identify the issue” Nike has remained silent on this critical equipment failure.

Nike stock price took a 1% hit the next day, with approximately $17bn in value disappearing. The hashtag, #itjustexploded has trended on Twitter since then. To say that Nike is reeling would be an understatement as Aaron Goldman, writing in AdWeek, said, “After all, the fate and reputation of shoe brands rest as heavily on their star sponsors as it does on their product quality.”

What happened? The shoe which failed was the Nike PG 2, named for National Basketball Association (NBA) player Paul George. Tim Newcomb, writing in Popular Mechanics, said, “The issue could come down to just how these special-edition Duke shoes were constructed, where they were made, or whether the titanic Williamson is simply too big for his sneakers (Paul George, by comparison, is 6-9, 220-pounds).” He went on to note, “The blowout appeared to happen where the upper connects to the midsole. This kind of failure isn’t uncommon in athletic sneakers made with so-called Strobel construction.”

Finally, going into full Popular Mechanics geekiness, he wrote, “The Strobel method produces plenty of flex, and allows a sock-like feel by using a cloth connection to stitch the upper (the portion of the shoe that wraps the foot) to the midsole (the section that contains the cushioning). The midsole sits atop the traction-containing outsole, and the two are often cemented together. Strobel construction offers overlock stitching to connect the sneaker’s last to the midsole for the more flexible and comfortable feel. But, as with any construction method, things can go wrong. Stitches can loosen, force can place too much pressure on stitching, or mistakes can happen at the factory.”

Even to the untrained shoe specialist such as the Compliance Evangelist, it is obvious that putting a shoe designed for a 220 lbs person (Paul George) on the 285 lbs Williamson is a recipe for disaster. What should he have been wearing? Former NBA player, Swin Cash said in a tweet, “Honestly at Zion’s size he needs to change up & wear Brons shoe. They are literally built for a guy his size. I remember after my back surgery I changed up shoes because of the shock impacted to my back. Tried diff styles some didn’t work.” Cory Alexander tweeted, “Those shoes aren’t made for 270 lbs… He’s not built like PG13… He’s built more like Lebron, who happens to also have a signature shoe much more suited for Zion.”

Of course, Nike has an exclusive shoe contract with Duke to supply its players basketball shoes. As a private institution, Duke has not reported the value of this contract but just down the road, at Chapel Hill, the NYT reported that UNC gets $10 million from its shoe contract from Nike.  This means even if the Nike shoes were insufficient to support Williamson, he was stuck wearing shoes which could have such a catastrophic failure and let to injury.

All of this raises the interesting question of whether Williamson should bother to return to Duke, even if the injury heals? He has nothing left to prove in the college ranks, as he clearly is the best player in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) this year. He may well be the best player to come out of college since LeBron James in 2003, truly a once-in-a-generational talent. He will be the No. 1 pick and since he can do nothing to improve that position, it is difficult to see why he should waste his considerable talent and energies into simply giving Duke a shot at yet another NCAA title. Tracy wrote, “The only thing that could halt these inevitabilities would be a serious injury that substantially lowered his draft value. While there is insurance for this kind of event, it rarely pays out and most likely could never account for the loss of value of Williamson’s future professional contracts.”

Tracy went on to write, “even college administrators said he should at least consider skipping it.” He cited to a former commissioner of the Big 12 Conference, for the following, “Every time there’s something like this, there needs to be continual exploration and dialogue about what, if anything, should be done to make it different.” How much was lost in this catastrophic shoe failure? Perhaps Ben Franklin said it best some 250 years ago:

“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,

For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,

For the want of a horse the rider was lost,

For the want of a rider the battle was lost,

For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,

And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.”

Nike had better come up with something better than we are sorry if it wants to stop the bleeding.

Join us tomorrow when we consider the compliance implications from the arrest for solicitation of Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

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© Thomas R. Fox, 2019