Sports Law Blog
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Sunday, March 14, 2004

High Schoolers and the NBA: Michael McCann, a visiting scholar at Harvard, has recently published an outstanding article on the legal and economic implications of high schoolers skipping college and entering the NBA directly. The article, "Illegal Defense: The Irrational Economics of Banning High School Players from the NBA Draft," was published in this spring's Virginia Sports & Entertainment Law Journal.

The article approaches the issue from two perspectives: economic and legal. On the one hand, it argues that there are substantial legal barriers to the NBA imposing an age limit on its draft (David Stern has advocated a minimum age of 20). However, McCann argues, the evidence shows that high schoolers have been successful, both financially and professionally, as NBA players. For instance, McCann finds that salaries for players skipping college are equal or higher than players that attended college. In addition, he notes the substantial economic cost of a player, especially a star player, foregoing four years of professional basketball for college, noting that in some cases the difference could be $100 million.

The most compelling statistic of the article, though, is that only 29 players have entered the NBA draft as high schoolers in the past 25 years. This tends to dispel the myth that the NBA is being overrun by players who have never experienced college. Of those 29, many have become "stars" or "superstars," while less than half are deemed "busts" or have been relegated to "minor league" basketball. Is the problem as bad as critics make it out to be?

I would actually be more interested in seeing an analysis of players who enter the NBA draft at under 20, versus those that are 20 and older. This mirrors the NBA's proposed rule and would give a better statistical sample. The main problem with McCann's analysis is that the majority of high schoolers entering the draft are either (i) superstar quality (i.e., Kobe, Lebron, Garnett) or (ii) players that cannot qualify academically for the NCAA. This lack of test subjects means the statistics may be greatly skewed by the great number of outliers, both at the top and the bottom. Widening the analysis to include players that leave college early, versus those that have gained greater experience before entering the league, could perhaps be more helpful in determining if a problem exists.

In addition, the article tends to downplay the importance of time spent in college. McCann notes that the actual education obtained by players will not greatly enhance their NBA experience, but these are not the most important assets of a college experience. On page 50, McCann notes that college basketball players in fact have less free time than a normal student, meaning that they must learn the valuable skills of time management and balancing multiple tasks. On page 63, McCann lists no benefits for the players who participate in the NCAA postseason tournament. However, possible benefits to these players are clear: (1) the experience of playing in a championship, high pressure setting; (2) numerous playing minutes, rather than sitting on the bench; and (3) a national stage on which to showcase their talent. A prime example of this is Juan Dixon, a four-year player who parlayed a run to the national championship into becoming a first-round draft pick. Dixon was known before the tournament, but not considered a superstar. The national stage allowed him to showcase his skills and he still plays with the NBA's Wizards.

In addition, the article notes the "economic cost" of players who give up four years of professional money to play in college, and thus, have less ability to sign large contracts due to their advanced age. As the article correctly notes, the skills of many players decline after age 30, meaning they will often not be able to sign large contracts. However, I would be interested in comparing the average career length of a player with college experience versus one with none or little. It may be true that players could make more in the short run by skipping college, but perhaps the skills gained in four years on campus translate into a longer overall career. After all, once raw talent is diminished by age, a player can only rely on knowledge and skills. In addition, if as the article states, teams want "teachers" for their younger players, those that have developed the necessary skills may be more sought after. Thus, it may be true that players who attend college in fact earn more money over their entire career than those that go for the quick buck. To use the examples on page 47, Shane Battier has established himself as a role player and most likely will make millions of dollars a season until well into his thirties. However, once Tyson Chandler loses the advantages of youth, will he be of any use to an NBA team?

Though I have small quibbles with the economic questions addressed, the overall quality of the article is first-rate. This is exemplified in the legal section, which gives perhaps the best analysis of relevant labor and antitrust law as it applies to sports. McCann is correct -- the 2nd Circuit's decision in Clarett may well decide the fate of a proposed NBA age limit. As I stated in this earlier post, I believe the collectively-bargained rule could be viewed as including players not yet eligible for the draft. Yes, there is an exclusion, but the exclusion is only temporary, and it does not prevent anyone from playing in the NBA. There is also a strong slippery slope argument -- if the NBA cannot set an age limit at 20, how can it require that players finish high school before they are drafted? There appears to be no need for a high school diploma in the NBA; thus, how does such a requirement not violate antitrust laws? If Freddy Adu can play professional soccer at 14, what is to stop a high school junior from declaring for the draft?

Many of these issues will be resolved over the next few years, and the impact on professional sports could be great. While McCann's article does not definitively answer any of the key questions, it provides a useful framework for analysis and shows that the leagues will face substantial obstacles in limiting the eligibility of potential players.