Bring Back Basketball’s Little Big Men
As one of the few fans still starry-eyed and silly enough to believe that some sliver of integrity remained in Sportsworld, I applauded David Stern, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, in 2005 when he engineered a ban on players entering the league’s draft directly out of high school. I assumed that teenagers, no matter how great their potential, were far too young to make the transition to the pros, their baby-faced awkwardness palpable and painful to witness.
Yes, there was LeBron James, whose entrance into the league in 2003 from his high school in Akron was seamless. But for every James, I figured, there have been all too many who had terribly stumbled. (Disclosure: I co-wrote a book with James about his high-school career.)
So I was pleased that, as part of a new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union, rules were established requiring American players to be at least a year removed from high school and a minimum of 19 to be eligible for the N.B.A. draft. This meant that young superstars would generally go to college, at least for one year. Beyond simply advancing their skills, I thought, it might turn them on to the value of an education, maybe enough to stay in school longer.
Now, with another N.B.A. regular season beginning today, the issue still rages, with ramifications that go directly to the heart of whether any professional sports league has actual concern for its athletes beyond a smokescreen of clever spin. And in looking back at Stern’s decision, I am now convinced that we got punked.
Stern, to his credit, said that it was a business decision to give players another year of development before being drafted. But it also sounded like genuine altruism on his part when he said that it was time to get N.B.A. scouts and general managers out of high school gyms. This effort to insulate teenagers from scouts seemed particularly necessary for professional basketball, in which players, regardless of age, seem even more removed from the real world than athletes in other sports.
Perhaps this was a way for Stern to start to come to grips with the reported statistic that close to 60 percent of N.B.A. players ultimately go broke. Or to help rectify what a professional agent once told me: that some players, after suddenly coming into money and buying houses and cars for themselves and their family and their posse, were still so naïve about life that they had no idea there was something called income tax. Maybe Stern was actually embarrassed by the paucity of college graduates in the N.B.A., about 20 percent. But I should have known better.
The honest move by Stern would have been to keep the old rule in place. Raising the age actually flew in the face of statistics showing that drafted high school players were relatively successful on and off the court. Did anyone truly believe that sending them off to college for a year would make any real difference, emotionally or academically?
Stern raised the age in large part because N.B.A. owners and general managers resented the amount of time it took to train players straight out of high school. He did it because owners did not like the possibility of players becoming free agents, able to join any other team in the league, in their early 20s. My guess is that he also did it to appease the National Collegiate Athletic Association; you could hear the whining that the N.B.A.’s version of cradle-robbing was denying the college game great players who could sell out arenas.
There are disaster stories of players entering the draft from high school and failing spectacularly. But as tragic as the stories are, they are an exception. A study by Michael McCann, a professor at Vermont Law School who is an expert on sports and legal issues, pointed out that of the 21 high school players who declared for the draft from 1975 to 2001, four became superstars — Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal and Tracy McGrady — and only four never made it to the N.B.A. This trend held with the high school draft classes of 2002 through 2005, the year the ban was put in place: of the 26 players drafted, 20 were still playing through last season and three have become superstars: Amar’e Stoudemire, Dwight Howard and James.
The frequent argument that players drafted straight from high school are more prone to quickly get into trouble because of their age has also proved wrong. According to a study by McCann in 2005 of the most recent 84 arrests of pro players, more than half the arrestees had spent four years on a university campus but only 4.8 percent never went to college (even though players without any college experience made up 8.3 percent of the league population).
As for high school students not being ready for the pro game, Jon Nichols of the Web site Basketball-Statistics.com crunched the numbers for the years 1996 to 2006 and discovered that players drafted out of high school had better efficiency ratings — a measure of overall play based on a player’s points scored, rebounds, steals, turnovers, fouls, shooting percentage and other statistics — during their rookie seasons than players drafted as college juniors and seniors.
One thing is clear: raising the minimum age to 19 hasn’t helped the players in any way. Superstars may go to college for a year, but for most it has nothing to do with getting an education. As the legendary coach Bobby Knight has pointed out, these players can retain their first year’s college eligibility without ever going to a class after their first semester.
Perhaps the greatest paradox is that some superstars actually do get turned on to the importance of college, but only after they have already left for the N.B.A. Shaquille O’Neal got his degree from Louisiana State eight years after leaving it; the former New York Knicks Larry Johnson and Allan Houston also eventually got diplomas. But when you are faced with a season that can go as long as eight months, fitting in school work is a precarious juggling act.
In professional football, the general requirement is that an athlete be three years removed from his high school graduation date. That may sound more caring than the N.B.A. rule, but it’s actually pragmatic: football players need those years to develop physically for the pros. If enough of them had bodies mature enough to make the transition straight out of high school, the N.F.L. would likely change its rules in a second.
Now Commissioner Stern says he wants to push the N.B.A. age limit up to 20; once again, don’t be fooled. Such a change would mean that superstar players get two years in college to further sharpen their skills. That would certainly make the N.C.A.A. happier as well as the N.B.A. owners who reap the benefits of a free farm system.
But the right decision would be to abolish the N.B.A. age limit. Equally important, professional sports leagues and the N.C.A.A. should stop jumping into the same Jacuzzi together, turning the idea of “student-athletes” into a farce, padding university coffers and keeping the pro owners from having to pay for the grooming of young talent.
If David Stern truly cared about his players’ well-being, he would advocate that all the silliness over the sanctity of the college academic experience stop and that N.B.A.-bound players get some share of the millions of dollars they generate: in the greatest capitalistic society in the history of the world, this may be the greatest inequity.
And if the N.C.A.A. truly cared about improving colleges instead of settling for the extra year before eligibility that Stern is talking about, it should use its considerable influence to demand that both the N.B.A. and N.F.L. foot the college’s bill for training pro athletes by paying a given amount each year for each player successfully drafted from college. The money would go into a fund for academic scholarships at the colleges these players attended. It wouldn’t perhaps turn young superstars into student-athletes, but in today’s hideous economic times, it might turn some deserving teenagers into students.