Let Athletes Be Athletes: Why the NBA’s Age Restriction is Unjust

Josh Selby played guard for the Kansas Jayhawks this year. Well, played might be an overstatement.

Selby started off the season firing putting up 25 and 5 in Jayhawk debut after serving an NCAA eligibility suspension for the first nine games of the season. ESPN.com’s recap of his first game was more than glowing asking: “Is it too soon to call him the legendary Josh Selby?”. Legendary? Nope. He was far from it. Selby started off the season well but injuries and a rocky relationship with the school lead him to struggle down the stretch becoming a minor bench player. During the NCAA tournament he played 15, 10, 17 and 15 minutes in Kansas’ four tournament games totalling an underwhelming 14 points. Selby never even cracked double digits in a game since February 1st.

Selby's getting out of college as soon as possible

Pretty unimpressive for one of the top recruits this year, yet Selby is entering his name in the NBA Draft this June.  If he has so much potential, he needs playing time at Kansas, right? He needs the proper development at the college level. Many call Selby’s move dumb. Short-sighted. Immature.

Me? I call him smart. And as for freshman studs like Jared Sullinger and Harrison Barnes who are being praised for their commitment to Ohio State and North Carolina are the really dumb ones. They are short-sighted and immature.

There is such an overwhelmingly universal response from the sports world to people like Josh Selby entering the NBA Draft after mediocre seasons that these players aren’t thinking straight. But in fact, at least in my opinion, these are the guys with their heads on best. Let me begin to explain why these guys should be entering early but even more importantly why high school players should be allowed to enter the NBA as well.

The Basics

Article X

In July 2005, in a revised collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the NBA and its players, Article X was added to the agreement which stated that in order to be drafted in future NBA drafts, a player would have to be at least 19 years of age and at least one year removed from high school. This changed the dynamic of the NBA Draft as straight from high school players would be no longer admitted into the NBA Draft. This led to a lot of American high school basketball players being forced to attend college (or in some rarer cases, play in a different basketball league) for at least one year.

This caused many players to be forced to endure one year of college basketball instead of earning money doing the same thing. John Wall, Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, Brandon Jennings, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo and Avery Bradley are some of those names.

The Rookie Scale

In order to understand some of the arguments made for and against the age limit, it is important to learn some of the NBA’s basics regarding salaries and drafting. Every June, all of the NBA teams select the best amateur players from all around the world with the worse teams higher in the draft in order to provide weaker teams an opportunity to improve with the best incoming basketball players. After being drafted, the NBA sets a rookie scale for each rookie to be signed at. The rookies are signed to set contracts by the NBA to prevent ‘holdouts’—when a player refuses to play until he contract demands are met. A scary example of a holdout was in the 1994 NBA Draft when first overall selection Glenn Robinson decided not to play until the Milwaukee Bucks, who drafted him, would award him with an $100 million dollar contract. The Bucks negotiated and settled on a deal worth over $68 million dollars for 10 years leaving the Bucks’ salaries heavily distributed to Robinson, which left the other 14 players on the roster with much less earning capacity. The owners wanted change and they got it in the 1995 CBA, which gave pre-set contracts for rookies to sign with their new teams. Since the 1995 CBA, no holdout situation has occurred.

The Myths

The Educational Value

One of the myths of sending high school players to college for a year is that they can perhaps learn something in the classroom. Doesn’t seem like the worst idea, right? I’m not going to ever advocate against education–but in this case, I will, because these guys aren’t getting educations. The first major reason is that, as studies show, revenue generating sports'(basketball and football, primarily) athletes have substantially lower GPAs than the general college population. Why is that? First off, many of these athletes feel indebted to their coaches and athletic directors because they are getting their schooling paid for. So, they act as employees for these coaches working tirelessly on jump shots instead of algebra. Take this into consideration as well, a collegiate player will spend around 40 hours a week practicing, travelling, lifting weights and playing in games. 40 hours a week! Why in the world would a high school player, or, in our previous case, Josh Selby want to spend 40 hours a week doing all of that when he could do the exact same thing for money! And not just any money–the sweetest money of them all: guaranteed money. That’s right, Josh Selby can shatter his knee in 300 different places and still get a cheque on every 1st and 15th.

I wonder why they made up Derrick Rose's SAT score...

Why do we force these players into being employees without earning money. They put in the time and effort of an employee–why aren’t they getting paid like employees? Their GPAs are lower, their study time is minimal and they see their NBA friends doing the same thing for money! Let alone the idea that none of these guys are really interested in their educations knowing that they are going pro in a few months is enough to dispel this myth. What about Josh Selby? He dropped out of classes after they were eliminated and began to work out and prepare for the draft. He didn’t even attend the Jayhawks’ end of the season banquet.

The Basketball Value

This is a much better argument for the age limit but still falls short. The main idea is that these players need development and high school players simply do not have the training needed to enter the NBA. Even if they are physically prepared for the NBA, many players need ‘polish’ before taking the next step.

Michael McCann analyzes the success and failures of high school players entering the NBA. The 29 high school players that have entered between 1975-2003 have not only made money, according to McCann’s statistics, but also have been abnormally successful. When including the very few of the high school players that did not earn a paycheck in the 2002-03 season to the rest of the group, and comparing them to the rest of the NBA, they still made 94.3% of the average basketball salary. Now, perhaps a better stat is when comparing just high school athletes that have made the NBA—and not including the ones who did not earn that year—and the average NBA player, the high school athletes have made 131.7% of the rest of the NBA in the 2002-03 season. Maybe how much one earns is not the best indicator of success, but it is a good measuring stick to show that these players are effective in earning equal to, if not more, than the average NBA player which proves their value. It is not even that high school players’ talents are just comparable—high school players are exceptional at the NBA level. Four of the last seven Most Valuable Player winners have been players who never went to college and six of the top eight vote getters for the 2008 MVP award were high school players. High school players have both exceptional earning power and superstar potential showing that there is no need for these players to go through college. Many say that the college game allows players to develop their games better–but high school athletes have demonstrated that the NBA coaches, trainers and managers are just as capable for providing these players with a good environment to grow into not only good, but great players.

“If these kids have the ability to get a little more maturity, a little more coaching, a little bit more life experience overall, that’s good.” argument

The above quote is from NBA commissioner David Stern. It’s a good idea and he makes a good point. Look, even if these players aren’t getting the best educational atmosphere or basketball environment–they’re getting something. I won’t deny that. And he’s right. It’s a good thing.

However, even if there is something to gain from going to school for a year–the loss is far greater.

For current New York Knicks guard Bill Walker, there was tremendous loss—and he is still paying for it today. Walker was supposed to be a high selection in the NBA draft after his senior season by all accounts in high school but was delayed entry because of the rules implemented that stipulated that he be 19 and at least one year removed from high school. Walker went to Kansas State and played well at the beginning of the season before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in January and faced a 6 to 8 month recovery time and never returned to form. Walker was drafted in the second round two years later and now plays a minor role on the Knicks when many scouts predicated that he could have been a star player fulfilling his NBA dream.

Never heard of Bill Walker? Thank the age limit for that.

Forget the NBA dream aspect, and remember that there are millions of guaranteed dollars that should have been in Walker’ bank account that are gone. Walker earned just above $850,000 this year and the Knicks can choose to keep him next year for just over $900,000.

The Battier-Chandler Example: The 100 Million Dollar Difference

One could argue that Walker was a rare case, but there is serious monetary loss for all players who stay in school longer. Michael McCann says that the difference between a player who enters the NBA out of high school in comparison to one that enters after four years of college can be estimated at around $100 million dollars (see Figure 1). He explains by comparing Tyson Chandler, a straight from high school player, to Shane Battier, who spent four years at the prestigious Duke University. As explained early, rookie contracts are set at a predetermined rate for at least four years. This means that for high picks, they are often tremendously underpaid, especially towards the end of their rookie contracts as usually by their third year they have established themselves as strong players. Tyson Chandler, who entered the league at 18 went through his rookie contract and would finish at 22 making him a free agent eligible to make up to $118 million dollars over seven years. Once Chandler signs his brand new deal, Battier, who spent those four years at Duke earning nothing, comes into the NBA and now must spend the next four years earning on his rookie salary.

Assume that both Battier and Chandler are elite players and demand the maximum allowable contracts of $118 million over seven years, after those seven years Chandler is 28 and due for another contract, while Battier is 33. That age difference significantly lowers the value of Battier, as teams are weary of signing an aging player to a big contract over many years. Thus, Battier is forced to accept, as McCann estimates, a $6 million dollar contract over two years. Chandler on the other hand is right in the prime of his career and is due for another raise. McCann estimates that Chandler could receive another maximum contract, and considering his talents as the second overall pick this is not unattainable by any stretch, which would give him $150 million dollars over another 7 years. By the time Chandler would reach 33, he would have already amassed two maximum contracts, while Battier only got one leaving approximately $100 million dollars on the table. Given these facts, what incentive is there for a player to go to college for even one year? Why would a great high school basketball player want to leave so much potential money on the table or even worse become the next Bill Walker and not get paid and not be a strong basketball player?

If you have the talent–enter as early as possible. Even if you’re not physically or mentally prepared, if you have something NBA execs like, get in quick. Greg Oden is going to make a living off of potential. In 3 years he has only played 82 games but he has the ‘next-Bill Russell’ mystique surrounding him making him due for another contract despite his inability to stay on the floor. If Oden was 27 after this season, people may be less willing to take a chance, but because he left after his first year he is now 23 and many GMs are willing to take a risk on him. The main idea is that an NBA player is most successful between 18-35. The key is to try to get as many long term, big money contracts within that time frame. When you enter the league at 23 or 24 your earning power dramatically decreases.

Fig. 1 Comparing the hypothetical earning capacities of Tyson Chandler and Shane Battier

NBA Interests

So we’ve established that there is minimal educational value, minimal basketball value and very high risk for players to not enter as early as possible into the NBA–but maybe there is good reason. Maybe the NBA needs to protect itself, its players and its GMs and owners from high school players. However, this just isn’t the case.

Protect the GMs

It is hard for GMs to scout players who only play against high school competition. Travelling to gyms to see these players play against largely inferior competition seems like a difficult way to scout players properly. Therefore, the NBA could say that they are protecting their NBA GMs from having to scout these players. However, younger players yield better results—and history is showing exactly that given the success of high school stars in the NBA. Given the rookie scale, teams are more tempted to select a riskier high school player as opposed to a more well known college player because there is minimal investment for a chance at a large return.

MVP Candidates? Don't be silly, they never even went to college

Studies have shown that a younger player grows faster as a professional athlete than a four year collegiate athlete and teams can capitalize on this by paying these rapidly improving stars very little in comparison to their value. Even if those years are spent training on the roster, if these players grow into stars by the time they are done their rookie contracts at 22 or 23, they will still have 10 to 15 years of basketball to play. Also, teams can benefit from being able to offer more than the maximum allowable contract to their own players after getting off of their rookie contract. There is a clear benefit in drafting young and recent years have demonstrated that as 21 of the 29 selections in the 2003 draft were not college seniors and in 2004, after the success of Lebron James, there were nine high school players drafted.

Why do we want to protect GMs from what seems to be (dare I say it) a safe pick? Younger players get paid very little on rookie contracts to develop and have more potential and, as some studies call it, “human capital”. It makes sense to draft high school players. But if a GM has some aversion to these players they have no obligation to draft them. This doesn’t seem like a good reason to keep them out of the league.

Welfare of the Athlete

A big reason why the NBA wants to keep athletes out is not because they want them to make less money or get injured but rather that NBA players need the maturity of going to college–even for just a year. A player coming out of high school may be too arrogant, physically unprepared (the high school season would feel like the pre-season in comparison to a full 82 game NBA season for a pro) and mentally unstable. The NBA wants everyone to go through one year of college in order to gain the maturity needed.

However, this is a subjective and paternalistic tactic unworthy of banning high school players. Where does the NBA feel the need to protect high school players? Of the 29 high school athletes selected between 1975 and 2003, only three have had criminal charges. In addition, NBA teams have the means to support younger players as seen by when the Minnesota Timberwolves offered to organize Kevin Garnett with a family in Minnesota and send him on team events for the University of Minnesota basketball team. These teams can train their players adequately so that they can be well prepared to deal with the day-to-day rigors of the NBA season and if these teams are afraid of drafting inexperienced players—they have no obligation to do so (McCann 164). In addition, even one of the failed high school stars, Korleone Young, was a fringe player in the draft in the scouts’ eyes, as he was drafted with the 40th pick and still earned more money playing basketball in the NBA and abroad than the average college graduate. Even ‘failed’ high school prospects end up doing fairly well financially.

KG is crazy--but college wasn't solving that

It would not be a stretch to say that NBA wants to send potentially inexperienced and immature athletes to get training from top coaches and play against elite competition. However, why could these players not enter the league and gain experience that way? Why does the NBA feel the need to use the NCAA as a free training ground for its players’ development? High school stars have been successful entering the NBA without NCAA experience. It is fair for the NBA to encourage these players to enter the collegiate level—but to mandate it seems unfair.

Selfish Interests

One of the more probable reasons for the NBA wanting its players to stay in college is because it is beneficial for its partner in the NCAA. The NCAA signs multi-year, billion dollar contracts with TV companies in order to broadcast its men’s basketball tournament. Recently, an agreement was made for Turner Sports to get the exclusive rights of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for 14 years for 10.8 billion dollars. This staggering amount of money represents 96% of all NCAA revenue. There is no wonder that the NCAA wants these high school stars to play as amateur athletes for free for at least one year in their system—they could not run any other sporting events without it. Without March Madness, there is no NCAA.

It works from the NBA perspective as well as, ESPN columnist, Henry Abbott speculated that a major reason the league enjoys the age restriction is because it allows the fans an opportunity to see players in college on national TV every year so that when they arrive in the NBA, they have already established a name for themselves. This is an excellent marketing plan as the NBA can get its marquee players national exposure without paying them. This is clear exploitation of the collegiate amateur athlete. The NCAA makes billions of dollars, the NBA gets a free marketing campaign, collegiate coaches earn endorsement money from shoe companies so that their jerseys and shoes feature their logo and the players are left empty handed.

The small gains, inconclusive paternalistic need and selfish desire from the NBA to put forth the age limit is unfair to high school athletes who put themselves at risk to injury, financial gains and, perhaps most importantly, their NBA dreams.

The Legal Debate

The NBA in many ways holds an economic monopoly over high school players. Considering the fact that their earning power in lower American or European leagues is significantly less, an antitrust lawsuit may be in the near future for the NBA. There is a precedent for antitrust laws in a similar situation and the NFL. In 2003, Ohio State University running back Maurice Clarett attempted to circumvent the NFL’s age limit (three years removed from high school) and enter after his second year of school. His argument relied on the Sherman Act, which defended against group boycotts and monopolies—which Clarett claimed the NFL was violating. Clarett won the first trial, but the NFL appealed on the grounds that collective bargaining between the league and the players superseded the antitrust violation. In other words, the fact that there was an agreement between the players and owners regarding this age limit, it defeated the argument because the courts valued collective bargaining over the Sherman Act. This set a precedent that allowed leagues, so long as there was a fair agreement between owners and players, to set age limits. The NBA’s age limit, unlike the NFL’s, is memorialized in their CBA making it impossible to tackle using Clarett’s case.

However, while the courts wish to value collective bargaining over the Sherman Act, there remains one large injustice: high school players are not included in the collective bargaining. In other words, how can a collective bargaining agreement be an answer to a high school player who’s interests are not protected at the negotiation table. Without a seat at the table, high school players’ concerns, while one that the NBA Players Association (NBAPA) values, is not a top priority. This injustice keeps high school players from entering the NBA. While the NBA involuntarily revoking the age limit seems unlikely given the legal precedence, there is clearly an injustice working against star high school athletes. Kwame Brown, a former high school draftee who was born to a single mother with seven siblings, said that “if you’re 17 or 18 years old, you can go to jail, you can go to the military, you can fight and die for your country—why not go play basketball for money? It’s a job. Why can’t you just go to work?”.

Conclusion

We’ve dealt with the basics, the myths of college experience, the tremendous earning power of those who enter early, the NBA’s (somewhat selfish) interests and the legal concerns and one conclusions remains the same throughout: the NBA’s age restriction is wrong. These players have a right to earn a living and the NBA uses its economic monopoly of elite players and puts unnecessary sanctions on these players for their own benefit creating an unjust situation.

Josh Selby most likely would have left after high school and never would have to play this year at Kansas. Did Selby need to go? After seeing all of that evidence against players that continue to play with amateur status, can’t we agree that Selby is smart for getting out as soon as possible. Ditto for Wall, Cousins, Durant, Oden etc.

Another knee injury? Check. Over $6,750,000 made this year? Check.

Why are we forcing someone who just wants to play basketball to get a bogus education and learn unsubstantiated life lessons? The financial and basketball risks are too high for David Stern to risk these young players’ games and lives for paternalistic needs. And it’s not like high school players have been failures–they’ve been far from it. Stern should be proud that his teams have the capacity to take 18 year olds and turn them into good citizens, great money makers and outstanding athletes. These young players have explosive talent and General Managers were taken note of it by drafting young. The rookie scale gives you the opportunity to develop a player on your bench before they slowly emerge as superstars. High school stud Jermaine O’Neal spent his first couple years in Portland rotting away on the bench before becoming an all-star. Was that bench time a waste? No, he got the best treatment, the best medical care, the best money, the best coaching staff and the best competition.

High school players need maturity? More ‘polish’? Need the college game?

Go tell Josh Selby that.

He’ll tell you the same thing: let athletes be athletes.

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