Zion Williamson injury: Let the decision to return to college basketball if he's able be Zion's to make

One of the most irksome things about American sports culture and commentary is how often so many are prone to spew on and on about how athletes should live their lives. 

Thirty-four seconds into Wednesday night's 88-72 home loss to North Carolina, Duke superstar freshman Zion Williamson suffered what Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski is calling a mild knee sprain. In a scary moment for Williamson -- and a discomfiting one for Nike, whose Paul George model burst under the pressure of Williamson's near-285-pound frame -- the freshman phenom's left foot popped free after the entire side panel of his shoe ripped apart. 

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Zion Williamson hurt his knee after his shoe burst open near the start of Wednesday night's game.  Getty Images

It was jarring, not only given the tricky nature of knee injuries and the awkward footwear failure, but also because of how early it came in the game and the circumstances under which Williamson was undone. 

"We're very concerned about Zion," Krzyzewski said after the game. "We will know about length of time tomorrow. It's stable. Obviously it has an impact. You lose the National Player of the Year on the first play."

On the biggest regular-season stage in college basketball, featuring arguably the best rivalry in sports, an almost immediate damper. The secondary ticket market was commanding prices well north of $3,000 for some seats. Barack Obama was courtside, even providing accurate real-time commentary that of course went viral within minutes. 

And now it's all messy and debatable and the perfect storm of speculation, just in time for college basketball to take its spot near centerstage on the sports calendar. College hoops' most famous player at the sport's most popular -- and polarizing -- program hits the deck and takes an injury, bringing reverberations back on Scottie Pippen's unprompted advice for Williamson earlier this year: just stop playing college basketball. So now a lot of people are going to be screaming their opinions about what Williamson should or shouldn't do. 

How about this: Let us not turn this injury into a referendum on college basketball and the amateurism experience. 

How about we let Williamson and his family make their own choices after they have all the injury information, get the MRI taken care of and have a clearer timeline on recovery? It's his life and his decision. If he chooses to return, that's great for Duke, college basketball -- and him. He clearly has loved his time playing for the most accomplished men's college basketball coach in history, increasing his value (by untold amounts) as a player and basketball ambassador over the past three-plus months. 

And I'll remind you that Williamson has said, multiple times in recent weeks, that he would have played a year in college even if the NBA age-minimum rule didn't exist.

"If I was going to sit out, I wouldn't have gone to college," Williamson told the media earlier this year. "I'm thankful that Coach K gave me the opportunity."

I'll also remind you that the most famous freshman, and certainly the most marketable player in college basketball in decades, isn't going to lose earnings potential because of this injury. Because of his unique build and athleticism, almost no injury is considered threatening to his stranglehold on becoming the No. 1 pick in June. The arguments for Zion to shut it down stem from, and boil down to, how much money playing in college, and maybe getting hurt again, could cost him. But that athleticism, that megawatt smile and that name already ensure he'll be handsomely paid by whatever team takes him No. 1 and however many brands choose to make him immediately rich as soon as he declares for the draft. 

He is such a celebrity as to already be referred to on a one-name basis. How many times has that been true of a college basketball player in the past 20 years? Not many.

And how many times have we seen a player built like Zion be this good this early at basketball? Never. 

"Obviously, you lose a national player of the year candidate, there are going to be uh, gaps, of what you have to do," Krzyzewski said.

He also said: "Hopefully he'll be back playing in the near future."

That would be optimal, yes. 

The biggest question now -- the biggest question in sports, frankly -- is the timeline of the injury. It's unquestionably a giant blow to Duke, but it also is a hit to college hoops. The sport is going to survive just fine (March will be forever bigger than any one coach, player, team or conference) but not having the Zion Show in the NCAA Tournament would be a huge missed opportunity. 

If Williamson winds up being healthy in short order but decides that playing 34 seconds vs. North Carolina is how he wants to walk away from college basketball, we should respect that decision -- however hard or not it might be for him. 

If Williamson opts back in, as I think he will if the knee injury winds up being a short-term setback, then just let him be. If he's only sidelined two weeks or so, that has him back well in time for the ACC Tournament. By then, he'll probably be as anxious and eager to play as he's ever been in his life. 

You can say "If I was him I wouldn't play another minute until I was getting paid!"

Well, that's fine. If you think that way. But you couldn't possibly know what it's like to be him right now. He's going to be rich beyond his dreams before long. Maybe he wants to play with some of his best friends before basketball becomes a profession just as much as it is passion? 

It's his life. It's his future. The rush to glom on to vilification of the NCAA model and invoke martyrdom on behalf of an 18-year-old, who is asking for none of this, is tacky. 

If Williamson's healthy enough to return to college basketball and jumps right back in, then we should applaud his intentions. And if he doesn't come back? That's OK too. The NCAA's system, for all its flaws, has also helped turn a fabulous freak show named Williamson into the must-see Duke attraction that is ZION. He knows it. He also knows, if healthy, he'll only have this chance at the college experience and the NCAA Tournament once. Choosing to walk away from that is the kind of dilemma almost none of us could understand, so we should respect whatever his decision is whenever he makes it. 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his ninth season reporting on college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

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