Monday, September 14th, 2009 at 1:56 pm  |  54 responses

Old Enough?

Etan Thomas and Dave Zirin sit down for a friendly debate on the NBA’s age limit.

by Etan Thomas and Dave Zirin

For those not familiar with the actual rule it is as follows: In 2006, the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NBA and the NBA Player’s Association implemented an age limit stating a player cannot be drafted to play for an NBA team until he is nineteen and has either finished at least one year of college, or one year has passed since his high school graduation.

Etan: My position on the NBA’s age limit has always been that I am against it. My mother and I actually have debated this issue many times as well. Her being a teacher, she feels very strongly that there should be an age limit and the fact that so many young people are not taking advantage of an education is not only catastrophic but a sad day. My mother’s position is that our people had to fight so long for the right to be educated and now young people are not valuing that struggle and are essentially throwing their education to chase a dream that has been dangled in front of their faces like the horse with the carrot. I can’t disagree with her point and we go back and forth on this topic. Now, I stayed in school for four years. Had a wonderful experience at Syracuse University. Got my degree in business management, met my wife, grew as a person and it prepared me for life. But that’s my case. Is it fair to force someone who wants to take a different path to attend college?

Dave: There is no disagreement here, E. I would like to give the floor to an All-Star who went from high school directly to the pros, Jermaine O’Neal. This is what he said in 2006 when the NBA instituted its age restrictions: “In the last two years, the rookie of the year has a been a high school player. There were seven high school players in the All-Star game, so why we even talking an age limit? As a black guy, you kind of think that’s the reason why it’s coming up. You don’t hear about it in baseball or hockey. To say you have to be 20, 21 to get in the league, it’s unconstitutional. If I can go to the U.S. Army and fight the war at 18, why can’t you play basketball for 48 minutes?” We also let 18 year olds vote. They can decide who gets to shape the laws of the country but not who gets to shape the league standings? That’s silliness. It would be one thing if the student athlete myth was real: if players were educated, if they received a stipend for bringing millions into a college coffers. Instead they are simply cost-free minor leagues for the NBA. That’s a serious problem and no amount of sanctimony can change that.

Etan: I definitely agree with Jermaine O Neal’s comments. In this country when you turn eighteen you are in essence considered a man. You can buy a shotgun, operate a helicopter, vote for the President of The United States, and they definitely don’t have any reservations to sending you overseas to fight in a war, so how could it be deemed lawful to prevent them from playing in the NBA? What they are concerned with their overall well-being and want to protect them from the horrors and the pitfalls that lay ahead of them if they are allowed to play in the NBA? They’re mature enough to make a decision to put their life on the line in a war but playing basketball is way too much responsibility for them to handle?

Dave: And unfortunately the “one and done” age limit is like an express lane to corruption. The last two NBA rookies of the year were “one and done” players: Derrick Rose, and your new teammate Kevin Durant. Look at the scandal at Memphis that has surrounded Rose. The school is now in NCAA purgatory because the terms of the relationship between Rose and the school were so terribly fraudulent. Stay for a year, build the “Derrick Rose brand,” go to the pros. This helps the league as Rose was a known commodity going into the L. This helped Memphis come a shade from an NCAA championship. This helps the NCAA keep up its mutli-billion dollar television agreements for the Final Four. (Believe it or not, the NCAA is officially a non-profit.) But did it help Rose? It only entered him as a teenager into a cesspool of corruption that no teenager should frankly ever have to deal with. Maybe a system like college baseball would be better where if you are good enough to play out of high school, you can be drafted by the pros, but if you enroll in a school, you need to stay for a certain set amount of time. Couple that with some kind of stipend and you have a system that  is more humane.

Etan: I have to disagree with you Dave, respectfully of course. The purpose of going to school is to find a good job, and if you can get a good job before finishing school why should anyone stop you? Suppose someone in the school of management jumps at an opportunity to start their own business ie Bill Gates, why shouldn’t they take that opportunity. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and it turned out ok for him. In fact, Forbes magazine says 20% of US millionaires never set foot in a college. But lets be honest here, what purpose will attending school for a semester or two or three or four really serve? Who really benefits? The colleges are the only ones I see who are benefiting from this program. They get a year or two of free labor. They get a chance to exploit these “ student-athletes”, make millions of dollars for the university while they get what, free room and board? Free education for a little while which is the equivalent of a benefit package. Like if you are employed at a restaurant and you get to eat there for free. If they are going to treat it like a business they should treat it like a business from top to bottom and college athletes should be paid. College athletics is the perfect business. One where you don’t have to pay your employees.  But that’s a whole nother topic.

Dave: It is a different discussion, but it is intimately connected to what we are discussing. It’s practically a criminal conspiracy: turning our colleges into an emporium of free labor and no-cost free minor leagues. Every country in the world looks at our system of amateur athletics and shakes their head in shame. It’s like in health care: the pursuit of profit has blinded us to the fact that the way we do “business” is not only amoral and inefficient, it’s an international laughingstock.

Etan: I definitely agree, but another way this system of college athletics is amoral is the fact that many state laws prohibit employment discrimination against individuals who are eighteen or over.
The connection has rarely been made but if an individual (potential NBA athlete) is being deprived of their potential employment, then they are in fact the victims of age discrimination.  The language in the New York State Human Rights Law clearly prohibits employers in any business/corporation from participating in any form of age discrimination when it comes to hiring employees. Correct me if I’m wrong but the NBA has to comply with all New York employment laws being that their headquarters are located in New York. Given that LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Al Jefferson, Jermaine O’Neal, Moses Malone, just to name a few, all entered the draft straight out of high school at age eighteen, it would be difficult for the NBA to justify its age requirement as a bona fide occupational qualification. I have heard the argument made that the age limit is advantageous to the NBA in terms of players maturing and honing their skills. However, all of the previous examples completely obliterate that theory. But aside from that, whether the player becomes the next Kobe or Lebron or is a disappointment, prohibiting them from employment solely on the basis of age falls under the category of age discrimination and therefore is an unlawful practice. There have been precedents set for an age discrimination case against individuals. A case in Michigan where an account executive was fired because the clients wanted an older person and her voice “sounded too young on the phone,” presented a claim of age discrimination. Another case in New Jersey had a twenty-five year old bank vice president who was fired and replaced with someone older after he revealed his age to his employer. A New Jersey court found that individual had presented a viable age discrimination claim. Don’t be surprised if one day very soon you see a player challenge the NBA’s age requirements on the basis of age discrimination. Mark my word, it will happen soon.

Dave: I hear you, E. There are also bigger, scarier questions here. Why is there no outrage that 17 year old Melanie Oudin played in the US Open? Why no concern about teen golfers or gymnasts? There is an underbelly here that stinks to high heaven about country club vs street sports and racial perceptions as well. This is why this issue affects everyone: not just the seven footer at the local high school. If we culturally accept that “some people” need the “maturity” that one whole year of college brings, while others are fine to grip and rip, we are also accepting a series of stereotypes that collectively rot us from the inside out.

Etan: I couldn’t agree with you more.

Etan Thomas is a center for the Oklahoma City Thunder and a columnist for SLAMonline.com. Find out about his new project, Voices of the Future, here. Dave Zirin is the author of “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” (The New Press). Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Read more at edgeofsports.com.

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  • BrewBall

    can someone clear up for me how and why rubio got drafted at 18? the begining of this piece said you must be 19 to be drafted. thanks

  • http://slamonline.com Lang Whitaker

    He would’ve been 19 when the season starts.

  • http://slamonline.com/ niQ

    I believe it’s cause he would be 19 by the start of the season.

  • Ken

    “20% of millionaires never set foot in college.” I don’t know the research behind this stat, but it can be very misleading. The way Etan uses it, it’s supposed to give the impression that you can be successful without going to college. But what if that supposed 20% are people who inherited millions of dollars? If you inherit millions of dollars and don’t go to university, that doesn’t mean that normal people who don’t go to university have a good shot at making millions. What if that stat counts millionaires who are below the age of 18? Cause that would make the percentage of millionaires who didn’t go to college pretty high too, and also doesn’t prove anything.

  • Homie

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t two people taking opposite sides of an issue a necessary element of a ‘debate’?

  • Justin

    WTF is this even about? Im still waiting for a debate to take place.

  • http://www.anwilson.blogspot.com rainman10

    It was a “friendly debate”, as Etan stated, he did disagree with Dave on a few things.

  • oddball

    wouldnt this be about age minimum and not age limit? i thought i was gonna read an article about how kevin willis was not allowed to play again…

  • bbal4lyf

    i believe the age limit is only for american born players rubio would have been 19 when the league started but the rules state you have to be 19 when drafted but hes sapnish so hes off the hook

  • http://www.another48minutes.blogspot.com Gerard Himself

    this should’ve got more replies, I like it.

  • geof

    How is this an issue? If an employer doesn’t want to hire someone who they think are too young to perform a job to the level they expect, then that is the employers prerogative, isn’t it? When you boil it down, how many high schoolers have been drafted that were busts? My guess is more than those that have turned into stars.

  • http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v701/og_loc87/raptor.jpg Josh

    Um, nobody is forcing these kids to go to college. They can play overseas or in the minor leagues here if they want to. Like David Stern said in the barbershop, the NBA is just trying to protect their brand, and I believe they have every right to do so.

  • Justin

    Every time someone (especially NBA ballers) say, “you can fight for your country at 18, why can’t you play in the NBA?”, it sounds completely stupid and FURTHER DRIVES HOME THE POINT…go to college, kids. If people only realized how dumb they actually sounded half of the time, they would keep their mouths shut.

  • http://fsjkfdlc.om Jukai

    As much as I am against the age limit, I’m also against anyone being dumb enough to call this unconstitutional. Are we comparing GOING TO WAR FOR A COUNTRY to PLAYING BASKETBALL?
    I rarely like any Etan Thomas post. Over dramatic garbage.
    It may have gotten better, but I stopped reading after the fourth ‘fake’ debate.

  • http://bleacherreport.com/users/42594-hoops4life Overtime

    Brilliant piece, both guys definitely spark a lot of thought

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  • J.C.

    I don’t think there should be an age restriction. The biggest argument for it is that high school stars get to the NBA and can’t keep up, bounce around a few teams then get dropped, and are left with no job and no qualifications. If a player wants to take that risk then its up to them. The point was made that in other sports, players are seen as mature enough by 18 years of age to make that call, but in basketball they’re not. While it might sound cliche to shout ‘That’s racist!’ it’s a valid concern.

    As far as the NBA wanting to protect its brand, that’s what your teams pay scouts thousands of dollars to do. If teams can’t make good decisions about who to draft and who will be a bust, then the players themselves can’t be blamed for that. The blame for the string of high school lottery busts that lead up to this age restriction should rest solely on the shoulders of the teams who drafted them and the scouts who didn’t do a good enough job assessing the talent and projecting their potential.

    If you’re going to essentially force kids to go to college (because understandably not many guys are going to want to go play in a foreign country for a year which is the ‘alternative’) then pay them. If not, let them enter the draft and the teams can make up their mind.

  • chintao

    @ Jukai ==> As a lawyer, I can tell you that the constitutional argument has plenty of merit.

  • T Money

    When I grow up, I want to work for the NCAA. They have a perfect business model.

  • T Money

    Its even better than slavery, because slaves weren’t voluntarily recruited.

  • Justin

    @chintao – When I was in the military, I couldn’t rent a car from the airport until I was 25. It sucked, but I just took a cab or the shuttle instead. Is that unconstitutional? Figured you might know, being that you are a lawyer and all.

  • Saku 39

    I don’t agree with Stern on most things but I’m okay with the age minimum.

    People bring up MLB but two things:

    1) Almost everyone goes to the minor leagues first where they can develop.

    2) So many prospects end up being busts and flameouts. It’s just hard to scout players that young.

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  • http://edgeofsports.com Dave Zirin

    No question, Etan and I agree on a lot. But that’s why it’s a friendly debate. Why do debates have to be between two sides who are intractably opposed and on opposite sides? There are real disagreements between us that that don’t get discussed because in our overheated media atmosphere we only debate the broad strokes and not the shadings of the lines.

    For example, I believe strongly that players who enroll in college should have to stay three years. That way they have at least a chance to get matriculated into the college atmosphere. They can become part of a college community, and they can GET SOMETHING BACK in terms of an education. That said, if someone is 18 and good enough to play in the pros, why degrade a learning institution – and the individual in question – with a one and done scenario?

    The current system is a joke. Etan and I agree on that. But we disagree on how to make it a system worthy of the beautiful game it represents.

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  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    This wasn’t really a debate. They rarely disagreed on anything material.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    A friendly debate means you disagree but remain civil. There wasn’t much disagreement here, just a difference in solutions for the same problem.
    As for people thinking that argument comparing the age limit to war is stupid, that seems like willful ignorance.
    The NBA decided to pretend that it instituted the age limit to protect players. Therefore, it’s logical to assert that if the players need protection from entering the draft, why don’t they need protection from death in the armed forces.
    If the NBA had made the argument that it was a business and the age limit was strictly a business decision to protect its teams, it would be a different story. However, Stern has avoided that argument because he understands that it implies that NBA teams take on some unnecessary risk by drafting high schoolers, which cannot be proven given the success of many high schoolers. That argument highlights the fact thageneral managers and owners, who should be able to make smart business decisions, obviously cannot.
    So instead of admitting the incompetence of its personnel, the NBA played the protection card, and it’s a weak argument when you consider the total picture.

  • max

    an age limit for refs would be far more important right know. I can wait for a kid to finish one year of college, but I certainly can’t stand those old/half blind refs for another year

  • Justin

    ATTN: SLAM MAG…PLEASE stop posting articles written by or affiliated with Etan Thomas. I used to like this cat, but all he does is whine about race and act like he is on some Erykah Badu s##t. You all are ruining any respect he has left

  • http://joeloholic.wordpress.com Joel O’s

    There’s nothing wrong with “agreeing to disagree” – to respect one another’s *means* of argument, even though they may not necessarily agree on each other’s *ends*. Interesting and thoughtful article, yet I don’t think there’ll ever be an east answer to this.

  • http://joeloholic.wordpress.com Joel O’s

    One thing’s for sure, however – the “maturity” argument behind the age limit reeks of hypocrisy. Does Disney bother about the maturity of the 15-year old tarts they’ve routinely been pimping out to the world?

  • chintao

    Justin is quite the ignorant lil’ cracker.

  • LilKDub

    I remember David Stern saying something at a Harlem barbershop (should be on SLAMTV) about the football year requirement. They require three. I understand that you don’t want an NFL beast tackling an 18 year old, but this posits almost the same thing. Can a super frosh have the same problem? We have already seen Maurice Clarett (he got an agent, and shouldn’t have done that) and Mike Williams (same story) go into the pits, especially Clarett.

  • David

    Hello. I always find Etan’s posts interesting so please don’t stop. Please post more, if anything.

    And Dave Zirin’s work is always great. Nice to see you on Slamonline.

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard a very good reason that high school grads shouldn’t enter the draft. And I still think that if the NBA’s so worried about 18 year olds playing against vets, then at least they could say they have to play on D-League teams for a season. Plus it’d add interest to the D-League and it’s players.

  • http://www.triplejunearthed.com/dacre Dacre

    AWESOME TOPIC – It certainly should be looked at from a lawful aspect, let alone a moral issue.

  • http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v701/og_loc87/raptor.jpg Josh

    @David: Playing in the D-League for a season IS one of their options, as is playing in one of the other minor leagues or playing in another country.

  • Justin

    Chintao is quite the low-budget bottom of the barrel reggin lawyer

  • http://fsjkfdlc.om Jukai

    Chintao, is “cracker” legal terms? I assume you don’t have many white clients. Douchebag.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    Justin just called Chintao the N-word. That’s what reggin means. It’s the n-word spelled backwards. It’s the code of cowards.
    Chintao’s response was over the top since I don’t support name calling to make a point. But, I understand why he said what he said, and honestly, given Justin’s comments on this site, it’s pretty accurate.
    Hell, if you think Etan is “whining” about race, and you throw out the n-word when angry, you’re probably a cracker. And ignorant to boot.

  • http://fsjkfdlc.om Jukai

    Comparing the NBA to our armed forces is insanely stupid. One is a professional business and a game, the other is the military forces which protect our country. There is a VAST difference.
    Kids in the armed forces are molded, night and day, to be soldiers. They go through intensive training, both mentally and physically, to follow all orders. They can rarely go out, and are put in situations where they are monitored constantly. One slight mistake and they are reprimanded legally instead of just fired.
    Until they implement that in the NBA, I’m going to say there is a vast difference between joining the NBA at 18 and joining the army at 18. I’ll say once again, I’m AGAINST the age limit, but I see nothing WRONG with it in a legal sense. It’s not age discrimination. Age discrimination really refers to workers 40+ having trouble getting jobs. Most companies will not hire workers “too young” to do a job, and that’s what the NBA is doing. And the NBA has plenty of players they can use to prove their age limit point (Kwame Brown, bust. Sean Livingston, massively injured) but they decided to be honest in proving their point by saying they do it so they don’t select number one picks who can’t play basketball.
    I don’t like it because one and dones are ruining the NCAA for me, and I don’t like the slave labor that these kids go through. Let college players get endorsement deals and pay them money for using their likeness for NCAA advertisements and I’m a lot more fine with the age limit.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    Oh yeah.
    If y’all assume that because Chintao called Justin a cracker he doesn’t interact with white people in his office, y’all are sadly mistaken.
    Just think about all of your friends you use language that’s not “PC” and think about how many of them have jobs and are quite successful. Why would things be any different for Chintao?
    Everybody wears a mask. Minorities are just particulalry adept at it because our very livelihood depends on it.

  • http://fsjkfdlc.om Jukai

    Allen: Didn’t realize Justin’s ignorant response. Bro needs to read more of Etan’s writings (it’s over dramatic garbage, but I don’t think he plays the race card on anything not legitimate) .
    I’m still equally angry at Chintao for bringing that up. Chintao lied about being a lawyer (or is massively ignorant in business law) and called someone a lesser racial slur. I’m not giving Chintao a pass on that.

  • Justin

    damn these people are sensitive. I’m not even white, I just saw that he called me a cracker so I called him a reggin. I could be as black as Etan (though I’m not AA either) and sill disagree with his ideas and whining. As far as the race thing goes, as long as AA’s use the word reggin to speak to each other, crackers will continue to use it against them. Difference seems to be when a white person gets called a cracker they usually laugh about it, AA’s get called a reggin they call Jesse Jackson and march and demand a firing.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    I never made a legal argument. I outlined why the NBA as a BUSINESS would want to prevent its teams from drafting high school players. This was PURELY a business decision.
    Unfortunately, the NBA choice not to market it as such, and I’ve pointed out the hypocrisy in that choice. The NBA does not compare about protecting high schoolers, and to assert otherwise is lame. Also, you have made this a comparision between the NBA and the military. I’ve compared the reasoning not the two entities. The idea that 18-year olds are in need of protection from entering their names in a draft to play basketball, but not in need of protection from being DRAFTED to die, is just crazy.
    It’s obviously crazy in my opinion, and the fact that so many people have swallowed Stern’s logic shows how much resentment there was with these high school kids becoming millionaires.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    You are ignorant.
    If you think that the use of the N-word (Please stop saying reggin, let everybody know what you’re using) by white people has anything to do with the actions of black people, you are horribly misinformed.
    Here’s a thought for you, who created the n-word and started using it?

  • http://slamonline.com Jhaney

    With everything going on in the world today with our new president, you can see that our country is full of racism. In other sports you can go straight from high school, but not the NBA. Think about it, the NBA consist mostly of black players. The other sports consist mostly with white players. That’s the difference. Until anyone can prove to me that race is not the issue, then I will always feel that way about the NBA age limit and this country.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    Also, the myth that whenever black people are the victim of racism we get a march is sad.
    It’s so very sad.

  • Saku 39


    Saying the country is “full of racism” is an overstatement and somewhat of an insult to those who fought for civil rights. True, we aren’t living in utopia but things have gotten much better over the last half-century thanks to their sacrifices. I can understand your sentiment but I don’t jump to the racism conclusion unless it is painfully blatant.

    The owners’ bottom line is to sustain a profitable, winning franchise. Maybe the age minimum was implemented because NBA scouts were incompetent and couldn’t evaluate players properly without more tape but I seriously doubt it was an attempt to hold any group down.

  • Justin

    @Allenp – I can’t use the n-word on here, I probably could have when SLAM first came out and tried to be brash and in your face and all that, but way too may people whined and complained so everything changed. 150 page magazines, 75 pages of commercial ads and lebron fold-outs. Sell-out is what some call it. Yes many marches and Jesse Jackson popping up out of nowhere is what keeps the rest of the country laughing at the reggin nation. I am not lying, respect yourselves and maybe you all will finally get some. Promise.

  • http://slamonline.com Allenp

    You are hilarious. It’s like it’s your mission to prove to everybody that Chintao was absolutely right in his initial assessment of you.
    If you think that calling somebody a n(igger gets Jesse Jackson’s attention you are sadly misinformed and I question your intelligence.
    Like I said, people, all people, do what they want to do. When people hold racist opinions it’s because that’s what they want to do. Unfortunately, cowards regularly want to take responsibility for their actions and would rather blame others.
    Your response is typical.

  • Justin

    At your next convention, tell Kanye I said hello

  • http://fsjkfdlc.om Jukai

    Justin, your ignorance is astounding and I’m growing increasingly upset I ever stood up for you. My one hope is perhaps you got shot in the brain during your service, and that you weren’t born that f*cking blind.

  • http://fsjkfdlc.om Jukai

    Allen: I explained why 18-year-olds can go to the military but not the NBA. In the military, you’re pretty much reshaped, mentally and physically. In the NBA, you don’t go for intensive mental/physical training (well, you do, but in a different way). Plus, you really should know the difference between getting bodies for military efforts and “protecting” kids playing b-ball.
    Once again, if college kids could get any money, I wouldn’t have a problem with the age limit.

  • http://fsjkfdlc.om Jukai

    I’m not really sure one can consider the whole age limit as real racism. A lot of NBA rules are (for instance, even though I support it, the dress code was definitely implemented because the NBA felt the white folk didn’t want to see all the black kids in their urban clothing).
    But do people really believe the age limit was put in place to keep the young black man down? It was put in place to:
    a) give scouts and general managers another year to see how high school kids will deal with higher competition. For every Lebron James, there is a Kwame Brown
    b) develop ‘stars’ in the NCAA, which in turn will not only increase people watching the NCAA, but maybe make some NCAA enthusiasts follow the NBA to see how their former player is doing.
    If the NBA was mostly white, I could see this rule being put in place to.
    So sure, it effects lots of black youth, but it’s not like the NBA would have said “oh sure Kevin Love, you don’t really have to wait a year, c’mon in.” So, I need someone to explain why the age limit revolves around black youth, according to Jermaine O’Neil.