On David Stern’s push to eliminate one-and-done players.
by David J. Leonard / @drdavidjleonard
It should come as no surprise that David Stern wants to change the NBA’s age restriction. The effort to curtail the straight-from-high-school baller has been longstanding, gaining the necessary steam and leverage in wake of the Palace Brawl.
With the lockout behind them, the League is obviously seeking to further modify the rule, requiring players to be two years out of school prior to entering the NBA. Stern, who has offered several different rationales for the age restriction over the years, is now focusing on basketball reasons:
“That’s not our rule. Our rule is that they won’t be eligible for the Draft until they’re 19. They can play in Europe, they can play in the D-League, they can go to college. This is a not a social program, this is a business rule for us. The NFL has a rule, which requires three years of college. So the focus is often on ours, but it’s really not what we require in college. It’s that we say we would like a year to look at them and I think it’s been interesting to see how the players do against first-class competition in the NCAAs and then teams have the ability to judge and make judgments, because high-ranking draft picks are very, very valuable.”
Stern is not alone with much support from those who yearn for a repeat Championship run from Kentucky or those who pine for a Jared Sullinger redemption tour as well as those who trot out arguments about maturity, the value of education, and countless other explanations.
Ironically, one of the loudest sources of support for adding a year to the NBA’s age restriction has come from Mark Cuban. He offers multiple reasons for a bolstered age restriction, recycling two of the most commonly articulated arguments: the cautionary tale and they are role models:
I just think there’s a lot more kids that get ruined coming out early or going to school trying to be developed to come out early than actually make it. “For every Kobe (Bryant) or (Kevin) Garnett or Carmelo (Anthony), there’s 100 Lenny Cooke’s.
It’s not even so much about lottery busts It’s about kids’ lives that we’re ruining. Even if you’re a first-round pick and you have three years of guaranteed money—or two years now of guaranteed money—then what? Because if you’re a bust and it turns out you just can’t play in the NBA, your ‘rocks for jocks’ one year of schooling isn’t going to get you far.
These sorts of arguments are not new. In my book, After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness (SUNY 2012), I explore the history behind the rule, the arguments offered to support it, and the larger implications of the end to the straight-out-HS baller.
While clearly arguing against the rule, I reflect on the larger implications as it relates to race, class and America’s education system. To highlight these broader issues and my belief that the rule is neither fair nor needed and that it embodies the NBA’s efforts to deal with race more than basketball issues, I offer you an excerpt from the book.
In an interview in Sports Illustrated, Phil Jackson denounced the NBA for its increased emphasis on young talent, offering insight into long-standing discursive articulations about the necessity and burden of Whiteness controlling savage, child-like Blackness. “It doesn’t matter whether they can play or not. We’ve ended up becoming a service for growth. Now it’s, ‘We’ll hire a chef, we’ll hire laundry, we’ll hire Mom, we’ll hire somebody to come and live with them so that they can perform at this level’” (Quoted in Thompson 2004, p. 84).
David Stern’s successful institutionalization of an age limit for those under 19 did provide an answer to Phil Jackson and others calling for a blockade to the NBA’s youth movement. That wasn’t its true motive. It did, however, seek to appease fans by projecting its purported image problem on to the backs, bodies and cornrows of young straight-out-of-high-school ballers. While the sports world celebrates the youth movement in golf, soccer and tennis, as “prodigies” and geniuses, the opposite seems to be the case in the world of basketball.
Today’s NBA and its surrounding media discourse often construct an authentic Blackness as menacing and threatening, a pollutant that requires surveillance and control, whether through increased rules or more prisons. More specifically, although dominant popular culture continues to imagine young Black inner-city youth as authentic embodiments of Blackness, the proposed rule change and corresponding backlash against the infusion of hip-hop into the League reflect desires to police “authentic Blackness.” The efforts to push out those young Black men who have jumped straight into the League reflect desires not only to regulate bodies in the League (and send symbolic message to fans), but to push future players into conditions and spaces that will ultimately produce a controllable, yet still commodifiable, version of today’s hip-hop baller. Imani Perry argues that the backlash against hip-hop is nothing new or unique, but rather reflects the White supremacist practice (and logic) that renders Black bodies and cultural styles as menacing and dangerous. “The isolation of Black bodies as the culprits for widespread multiracial social ills is not unique to rap. It has occurred in critiques of the welfare state, in the demonization of early release programs from prison, in the image of drug trafficking, and in the symbols of sexist aggression” (Perry 2005, p. 27). Likewise, the ways of mediating and controlling these dangerous bodies find similar logic within both the world of sports and the criminal justice system. The age restriction is the NBA’s version of various juvenile crime initiatives, working to constrain and control those who have secured a piece of the American Dream through basketball; more importantly, it utilizes the same racist logic that identifies Black bodies as threats to White hegemony and pleasure, conceiving of rules, state power, and surveillance as proper and necessary methods to save both the game and community. To protect the streets, thus, necessitates more police and prisons, while protecting the NBA mandates increased rules and regulations of bodies, whether by minimizing trash talking; establishing regulations regarding shoe and sock color, headwear and lengths of shorts; airbrushing away player tattoos; or, in the end, restricting who can and cannot enter the League.
More importantly, the call for and successful implementation of an age restriction in the NBA cannot be understood outside the context of the (increasing) hegemonic practice of trying youth of color accused of crime as adults. Like the NBA age limit, in terms of its ideological orientation and obvious effects, the efforts to try teenagers as adults have disproportionately affected communities of color. Beginning in the 1980s, calls for law and order and truth-in-sentencing resulted in an increased effort to not only incarcerate youth, but to try them as adults. By the mid- to late-1990s, 43 states had enacted laws facilitating the transfer of children into the adult criminal justice system, laws that have led to the gradual erosion of the 100-year-old juvenile justice system. Founded on the belief that children, because of their vulnerability and immaturity, are entitled to a range of special protections, the juvenile court was intended to shield youth from the deleterious effects of the adult justice system. However, the 1990s saw a paradigm shift in which age came to represent nothing but a number to prosecutors, the police, and the larger criminal justice system. Currently, all 50 states have laws on the books allowing juveniles to be tried as adults. According to a 2008 report from the Equal Justice Initiative, roughly “2,225 children under the age of 18 are serving life sentences in US. Prisons; almost two-thirds are children of color” (Jung 2008).
At first glance, the support for and successful implementation of an age limit in the NBA, coupled with a simultaneous effort to try certain youth offenders (of color) as adults, appears to reflect a societal contradiction. Is the desire to protect and deny early entry into the NBA Draft for those under the age of 20, in a society that increasingly treats age as irrelevant within its criminal justice system, an example of hypocrisy? Although a superficial examination might lead to such a conclusion, the NBA’s age restriction and the efforts by the criminal justice system to increasingly try youth (of color) as adults share in common the fact that both seek to discipline deviant bodies, control those who transgress societal boundaries, and ultimately, punish young bodies of color.
The fact that a majority of NBA players, particularly those who were early entrants, supposedly emanate from single-mother homes in America’s poorest communities is a point emphasized by much of the public commentary to explain both the necessity for early entry and the problems experienced by early entrants. Whether because of financial need, poor parenting, or a culture of immediate gratification, efforts to join the League are pathologized and linked to a culture of poverty, mandating intervention by the noble White parent who ultimately knows what is good for young Black males: discipline and punishment. The realization that the NBA was indeed Black in wake of the Palace Brawl led to increased calls for disciplinarity in the form of zero tolerance policies and other forms of control. The restriction on entry and the efforts to oversee who could enter the League and under what conditions became increasing necessary once it became clear that racial transcendence was an illusion and thus the League was indeed inhabited by (undisciplined) Black kids.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He is the author of the just released After Artest: Race and the War on Hoop (SUNY Press) as we as several other works. Leonard is a regular contributor to NewBlackMan, layupline, Feminist Wire, and Urban Cusp. He is frequent contributor to Ebony, SLAM and racialicious as well as a past contributor to Loop21, The Nation and The Starting Five. He blogs @No Tsuris. Follow him on Twitter @drdavidjleonard.