By Jason Keidel
Word on the street is that the big cheeses at the NCAA and NBA have agreed on a new age requirement for playing pro ball. NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who really doesn’t need the NCAA’s approval, is increasingly vocal on the matter. And while the new rule may not be implemented this year or next, it’s looking more and more like no one under 20 will be allowed into The Association in 2016.
And that’s a good thing.
If the reports are accurate, college players will be forced to wait until they are two years removed from high school before declaring for the NBA Draft. The ACLU-types will cry foul and file a few briefs; the intelligentsia will preach from their perch of moral authority. They will make some compelling points about age and wage and poor kids buying mom a mansion.
The civil libertarian argument sounds great but is soundly flawed.
They assert that a young man over 18 has the right to earn a living, college be damned. They are absolutely correct. What they always miss is the fact that there’s a definite distinction between the right to earn a living and the privilege of playing in the NBA for millions of dollars.
No one is telling Jabari Parker he can’t become a chef, cop, or cab driver. But all employers have prerequisites, from college degrees to documented experience in a given field. If the NBA required a bachelor’s degree, they would be no different from IBM or other high-end employment.
It’s absurd to assert that making a young man wait two years to apply for a job is racist or ageist or fascist. If you look through an objective lens, removed from the cash-green goggles of the young man about to sign his first NBA contract, you’d see that the longer a player waits to play in the NBA, the better it serves his current, college team and his future, pro club. True, it serves everyone but the young man. But so is the fact that he can’t drink, yet he can die for his country.
All sports need stars. My beloved boxing is in tatters because it hangs on the narcissistic whims of Floyd Mayweather Jr, and, to a lesser extent, Manny Pacquiao. After those two fine fighters – who should have fought each other years ago – there are no icons.
The NBA was pulled from the dead in the ’80s because of two men – Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Then Michael Jordan ushered it all the way back into the mainstream. What do they have in common? They played past their freshman year.
Pro football trades on its marquee men, from Peyton Manning to Adrian Peterson to Ndamukong Suh. Guess what they have in common? They, too, were developed and promoted in college.
Baseball, as conflicted and self-destructive as it has been for the last 20 years, relied on Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Albert Pujols high priests of our pastime. And then those graybeards bequeathed the throne to Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, fresh young faces who bring clean veins to the game.
This is one of the few times we need to put quality before equality. A few divinely gifted basketball players will be inconvenienced for a year. But it’s a small tax to pay to make the NBA an exponentially better product.
People love to italicize Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James as gold-plated avatars of a free market, ignoring infinitely more (Kwame Brown, Sebastian Telfair, and the immortal Korleone Young) who bombed and never recovered.
We know the main concern. What if they get hurt during their sophomore season?
That’s a risk every athlete takes every year. And if said athlete stays his sophomore season, maybe he stays his junior season. Maybe he gets his degree. Is that so appalling? Grant Hill and Tim Duncan are the last superstars to stay all four years. It worked out pretty well for them, too. Both got a fine education and neither was denied a dime or an opportunity to flourish. (Grant Hill got hurt, of course, but well into his NBA career.)
And suffice it to say a young man will be more personally and fiscally mature by staying in school. As most of you recall, the difference between being 18 and 20 years old was pretty substantial, both physically and metaphysically.
Maybe remaining in college will reduce the number of broke 35-year-olds who somehow squandered $100 million before their 30th birthday. Maybe they make it rain on Charles Schwab instead of Cinnamon and Destiny on the main stage.
The one-and-done apologists never remember the NFL’s far more restrictive – and far more fruitful – draft eligibility standards. A football player must wait three years after high school to enter the NFL. No one gripes about it. That’s probably because it works so well.
The NFL Network just had a three-hour extravaganza in preparation for the…schedule!
The Shield is so big we even applaud the mundane, actually drool over who plays whom on the third Sunday in September. Of course, changing age requirements isn’t going to make the NBA half as popular as the NFL, but the premise is important.
Colleges serve as a de facto minor leagues and promotional arm for their professional kin. We have dossiers five-inches thick on the first-round prospects this year. We know where Jadeveon Clowney eats, sleeps, and how much salt he sprinkles on his sandwich. Johnny Manziel, who hasn’t played a down of pro ball, is already trying to trademark his handle, “Johnny Football.”
(What’s Joel Embiid’s world-renowned moniker?)
What do you know about Noah Vonleh? How about Zach LaVine? After the anointed few (Parker, Aaron Gordon, and Andrew Wiggins) we can’t name ten players who declared for a draft that’s barely two-rounds deep. The NFL keeps us stapled to the television for 12 hours a day during their draft, people from around the globe squatting in the ornery April weather outside Radio City for a chance to slither into the auditorium. (Yes, we know this year it’s in May.)
Do we even know where the NBA Draft is held? We know the ping pong balls are spun somewhere in Secaucus. I don’t even know exactly where, and I LIVE IN Secaucus.
So this isn’t even a matter of good business because all needles point toward the kids staying in school. It’s clearly legal. The only issue is fairness, and fairness is subjective. But the subject will soon be closed.
Sometimes the right thing to do isn’t always the fair thing to do. Two years and a few adolescent tears will make everyone better. Even if they don’t see it now. Ask Tim Duncan, who’s still playing. Or ask Kwame Brown, who isn’t.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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