How Zion Williamson Defines a Generation

Reality Bites is a 1994 film where Winona Ryder plays an aspiring documentary film maker caught in a love triangle between Ethan Hawke and Ben Stiller, but really, it’s about the assumed binary of picking between maximizing one’s earning potential in a capitalist society or maintaining one’s moral and artistic integrity at great financial cost. Stiller’s character represents the idea of “selling out,” working a “normal” well paying job as a TV executive while Hawke’s character represents the morally “pure” ideal – bouncing between minimum wage jobs and refusing to commit himself to a greedy corperation.

The interesting thing is while usually a story set up like this will have the character Ryder is “supposed” to be with be a jerk to signal to the audience who they should root for, Stiller, who also co-wrote and directed the movie, plays his character as a pretty solid boyfriend overall and trying to support her career, while Hawke’s character gets fired for comitting the petty crime of stealing a candy bar at work and overall seems like kind of a douche.  After Stiller helps her promote and sell her documentary at his TV network, she becomes outraged because the network compromises what she views as her artistic vision, which drives her to choose to be with Hawke and break up with Stiller.

The movie came out to mixed reviews, and many critics, including the legendary Roger Ebert, found the movie’s conclusion that Ryder is “supposed” to be with Hawke instead of Stiller to be insulting. Meanwhile, a generation living in the musical era of acts like Nirvana and Radiohead placed a premium on the idea of artistic integrity. Popular rap acts like NWA embraced this idea even more explicitly with the idea of “street cred” -maintaining one’s roots and connections in “the streets” even after attaining wealth. In this environment, the movie resonated with Gen X’ers in particular because it explicitly opposed the idea of selling out.

Enter Zion Williamson,  who I think, represents a shift in this type of thinking. In the first minute of Duke’s biggest game of the season against UNC, his shoe sort of, uhm, exploded, resulting in a knee injury that sidelined him. What’s important here is that his injury has been listed as “day to day” – which is generally interpreted as being a very minor injury. We can’t say for 100% certain if this is the case, but media discussion operates under this assumption, and it’s the discussion around Zion’s future that interests me more than whether he actually plays another NCAA basketball game again.

Image result for exploding shoe
Shoes are not supposed to do this

A simple google search for “Zion Williamson Injury” finds several thought pieces asking the question if Zion should simply refuse to play another basketball game until he is drafted, and most of them argue that it would be foolish for Zion to risk his basketball future by playing again. Even this NBA reddit post about Charles Barkley arguing the opposite which, in theory, should attract supporters of the view point has a significant majority of the comments disagreeing with him. What I find most interesting about this concensus among young people online is the tone with which they express this opinion. It’s not just that they, personally, would choose to sit out the rest of the season, but the implication that Zion would be foolish or even irresponsible for choosing to play NCAA basketball from here on out when being the #1 draft pick seems all but assured at this point.

Frankly, I find that implication absurd. It’s one stepped removed from the ridiculous fictional TB12 executives in this Tom Brady promotional video that decide he should live in a safety bubble until the next NFL season.

There are two very important considerations I base this stance on:

  1. Zion Williamson is not a football player. The risk of suffering a serious injury playing NCAA basketball is really low. If he was playing football, I would 100% agree with this stance.
  2. The odds of suffering an injury bad enough to negatively affect the NBA career of a 19 year old is almost zero with today’s medical technology. Even a catastrophic injury like Paul George suffering a severe compound leg fracture hasn’t stopped him from having the best season of his career post-injury.

To be clear, I am not telling Zion Williamson to play through an injury. I am assuming the media’s report on the severity of his injury is correct.

I also don’t want to make it seem like I am lumping everyone who would personally sit out in his position with people who think he would be an idiot for choosing to play. There have been plenty of nuanced and fair takes about this really unique and interesting dilemma in “amateur” sports. I’m mostly talking about people around my age using social media and posting on their blogs to be honest.

To tie this back to Reality Bites, what I find interesting here is that my generation in particular seems to have swung from one extreme to another. As Gen X gave way to the millenials in the cultural zeitgeist, we have gone from being outraged at the gall of Metallica to sell out by releasing a music video (and releasing the Black Album, and suing Napster for pirating their music) to being semi-outraged at the suggestion that Zion Williamson might still want to play basketball even though his NBA career is all but secured at this point. Nevermind the fact that his passion and enjoyment of the game is one of the biggest positives in his draft assessment that makes him such a desired draft prospect to begin with; zion is a fool if he considers anything other than maximizing his earning potential.

BUT

This alone doesn’t tell the entire story. What’s most interesting is that the “Zion should sit out the season” supporters are actually approaching this from two opposite angles simultaneously. Not only are they saying Zion should maximize his earning potential, but another strong theme is the “Fuck the NCAA” angle – the idea that Zion is not being fairly compensated for the financial value he provides to Duke and the NCAA as a whole, and therefor, he should sit out the rest of the season to spite them.

The way I phrased that could easily be interpreted as pointing out a hypocrisy, but those two view points are not mutually exclusive. What’s interesting is that it is not exactly a generational pendulum swing. The “fuck everyone get your money” mentality of the baby boomer generation – whose cultural zeitgeist can best be seen in the consumerist culture and corperate deregulation of the Reagan era – is not reflected in the Millenial generation. The Gen X hatred of selling out is clearly a rebuttal of this mentallity, but the Millenial view is is not a complete rejection of Gen X. Instead, it is a sort of Hegelian reconciliation of the two ideas. It is a nuanced synthesis of the two generations before them – where the athlete is justified in selling out out in order to assure the future of his family, but the NCAA is not because they already have more than their fair share of accumulated wealth.

The last two paragraphs I wrote also have this sort of opposition to each other. I refer to millenials talking about Zion as binary and close minded in one sentence and nuanced in the other. Just as before, these are opposite angles but not mutually exclusive. The framework that Zion is discussed in was created with a complicated nuance of what came before, but judgments made within that framework are absolute and inflexible.

That is not to suggest my own words are without generalizations and binaries. I made pretty sweeping statements about three different generations. They’re generally agreed upon statements, but massive generalizations nonetheless. Obviously, there are baby boomer socialists (Bernie Sanders), Gen X “sellouts” (like Metallica themselves) and Millenials who are neo-capitalist facists (everyone on 4chan) and full fledged make millionares illegal socialists (every leftist on youtube) all which prove individuals are not defined by their generation. All I mean to suggest with all these statements is that these very broad and general trends have largely determined how the conversation are remembered within the broader “culture” – whatever that means in an era where entertainment and culture is become more niche and decentralized than ever.

What the Zion Williamson discussion unearths is that Millenials are a generation that we are still very much confused about. We don’t even know what a millenial is. The definition of “millenial” stretches birth years of anywhere from 1978 to 2004. “A Star is Born” is a story interested in the very traditional Gen X  idea of artistic integry vs. selling out, and it clearly sides with the former – linking the corperate “selling out” directly with the suicide of Jackson Maine. It made a ton of money and became immediately and permanently relevant with a supernova hit single and a barrage of memes. Meanwhile, the most popular musicians within the traditionally counter-culture genre of hip-hop like Kanye West, G-Eazy, Post Malone, and Drake exist completely devoid of the requirement to have “street cred” like their 90’s predecssors. Both exist and thrive within the same millenial driven cultural zeitgeist.

I think this is the defining trait of the millenial generation that Zion Williamson has revealed to me. We are a generation without a defining narrative, and lacking that, we have become a society of extreme polarization. Without a sort of self-evident center to gravitate towards – the options for a generation’s ideology become various forms of socialism or facism. This is because those two ideologies represent the greatest transformation and the highest possibility to forcibly mold a narrative out of thin air.

This polarization and uncertainty is not inherently a good thing or a bad thing. What it means is that this generation represents a turning point in history. What that turn is has yet to be determined.

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