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Zion Williamson’s shoe blowout, knee injury leads to blowback for Nike

Duke’s Krzyzewski speaks about Zion Williamson’s injury and loss to UNC

Star freshman Zion Williamson is injured in opening moments and doesn't return as UNC wins 88-72
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Star freshman Zion Williamson is injured in opening moments and doesn't return as UNC wins 88-72

Zion Williamson’s sneaker blowout has caused considerable blowback.

The Duke freshman forward, considered by many the best college basketball player in the country, injured his right knee Wednesday after the Nike shoe on his left foot blew out near the sole line early in the game against North Carolina. It was an awkward spill, and while Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Williamson has a mild knee sprain, it raised questions about product liability and the responsibility of sports apparel giants such as Nike that have multimillion dollar contracts with schools.

One immediate result of Williamson’s injury was Nike stock taking a hit. Reuters reported that shares of Nike Inc fell 2 percent in early trading Thursday. Reuters also reported that stock for Adidas and Puma moved a bit higher.

Nike issued a statement after the game, won by the Tar Heels, saying the company was “obviously concerned” and wished Williamson a “speedy recovery.”

“The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance,” the Nike statement said. “While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”

What was the issue with the shoe? Was the shoe being shipped to Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.? A Nike spokesman said Thursday it was standing by its statement and had no further comment.

Nike has a longstanding relationship with Duke athletics and Krzyzewski, and the school and company agreed to a 12-year contract extension in 2015. Duke, a private institution, does not make its Nike contract or the company’s financial arrangements with coaches public.

But similar contracts with other schools offer legal protections for apparel companies.

UNC recently signed a new contract with Nike that is 42 pages long and filled with contractual obligations the school must follow. The contract includes this condition: “Nike shall not be liable to University, any Team member, Coach or Staff for any injury or damage suffered from wearing or using Nike Products, except such injury or damage resulting from Nike’s negligence.”

N.C. State has a sports apparel contract with Adidas that contains a similar provision -- that the company is not liable for “any injury or damage” suffered from wearing or using Adidas products except those resulting from “negligent or willful acts’ by Adidas.

Check out photos from UNC's win over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC Wednesday night, Feb. 20, 2019.

‘Light, yet strong’

Williamson was wearing Nike PG 2.5 shoes designed by the company for Paul George of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. The company, in its promotions, describes the PG 2.5 as being “for the game’s most versatile players. It’s light yet strong,”

As Williamson attempted to make a quick stop in the lane, the left sneaker ruptured. The 6-foot-7, 285-pound Williamson fell to the floor in pain just 36 seconds into the game and did not return. UNC went on to win 88-72.

Krzyzewski said he did not know how long Williamson would be sidelined. Some NBA players took to social media Wednesday night and Thursday urging Williamson to sit out the rest of the season and wait for the NBA Draft, and not further jeopardize his NBA career.

This past fall, Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa suffered a abdominal injury early in the season that required surgery. Considered a high draft pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Bosa recovered but then announced he would pass up the remainder of the season to prepare for the draft.

Apparel issues have cropped up in the past. In the late 1990s, former N.C. State basketball coach Herb Sendek had a shoe contract with Adidas but allowed his players to wear Nikes in games after thee players suffered broken bones in their feet wearing the Adidas sneakers.

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski explains the team's switch from adidas to Nike years ago as the Blue Devils ready for PK80 Tournament celebrating the 80th birthday of Nike founder Phil Knight.

Legal issues

There also have been legal issues. In 1998, as part of a $12 million suit against UNC women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance and other UNC officials by former players Debbie Keller and Melissa Jennings, it was alleged Keller suffered physical and emotional distress from a heel injury in the fall of 1995 that involved competition between Nike and Adidas.

The suit claimed Keller suffered the injury in 1995 while wearing an Adidas soccer shoe being tested by the women’s soccer program. Keller alleged Dorrance denied her the use of a custom-made Adidas shoe that would help her recovery and that she then obtained one from Nike. She says Dorrance informed her she could not participate in the Olympic camp nor wear the Nike shoe while on the UNC team. Dorrance, Keller alleged, interfered with her plans in order to gain leverage in his negotiation with Nike for sponsorship of his UNC program.

The suit was settled with Keller in 2004.

In 2008, Ally Baker of Raleigh, considered a rising star in international tennis, sued Adidas for negligence, saying Adidas shoes caused a foot problem that forced her to retire from the sport in 2004. The suit, filed in a North Carolina court, was later dismissed for an improper venue.

Demonstrating with his personal Nike sneakers he uses to walk to work every morning, reporter Josh Shaffer explains how Zion Williamson's shoe blowout is a common problem in the industry because of their design and the desire for customization.

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In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.
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