Sports Law Blog
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Monday, June 28, 2004

The NBA's Age Limit: Following another NBA draft that should have been televised by Nickelodeon, the questions have begun anew of whether the NBA can and should impose an age limit. Sports Law friend Mike McCann makes very compelling arguments that the great majority of players benefit from the decision. This I cannot dispute (at least not yet -- who knows what the future may hold?)

But what is in the league's best interest? David Stern has made no secret of his desire to have an age limit (at 20). In addition, some NBA veterans have also expressed their support for a minimum age, often after having played with those still in their teens. Many fans believe that the style of play has eroded in the league and that skill level is down. Some attribute this to the influx of high schoolers - others say that skills are no longer taught, no matter the level.

But if the league wants to control its product and institute an age limit, will they be able? For its part, the players union, led by Billy Hunter, has said no way. Hunter has been adamant that the union will not agree to any rule that precludes young men from entering the draft. But is there a large enough carrot to get him to change his mind? The union has conceded that if the league agreed to a rule that knocked one year off of the rookie salary cap for each year played in college, then an age limit would be deemed acceptable. The NBA said no to this counter-offer six years ago and is likely to do so again. But this at least shows that when Hunter says "no," he means "No, unless you give us something good."

Legally speaking, the NBA has to get the age limit included in the CBA or it most likely will not fly under Clarett. The courts seem clear that it cannot be unilaterally imposed by the owners, or else there is no labor exemption and antitrust laws will be violated. So, as the negotiations come up on the horizon, the questions are: What will the league be willing to give up? Will it be enough? What will the position be of the NBA veterans who stand to gain the most by an age limit? In the wake of Clarett, this could be the most interesting CBA negotiation in years.


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