Old Enough?

by September 14, 2009

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.