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Tuesday, June 28, 2005
The Red Herring of Age in the NBA Draft

The following is my reflection of the recent imposition of an age floor in the NBA Draft, and also my law review article Illegal Defense: The Irrational Economics of Banning High School Players from the NBA Draft.

Later tonight, the NBA will conduct its annual entry draft. Among those players drafted will be those who recently graduated from high school. Numerous basketball analysts and social commentators will express dismay at the prospect of these players skipping college and earning millions of dollars a year. They will then praise the NBA and the National Basketball Players’ Association for agreeing to institute an age floor of 19, effective for next year's draft.

What these analysts and commentators will not mention is that banning high school seniors from the NBA Draft is perhaps the most illogical decision in the history of professional sports. It may also prove illegal. Consider salient facts that belie popular rhetoric: high school seniors in the NBA average more points, grab more rebounds, and dish out more assists than does the average NBA player or the average player of any age group. Banning them is akin to removing the best part of a product from that product.

Common sense might suggest that NBA teams can more deftly measure a player's ability after he has played in college. But remember, age is merely a proxy for maturity and preparedness. For instance, the federal government has determined that 18 is the age when citizens are mature enough to vote. Surely, some citizens younger than 18 possess the requisite maturity to vote, and of equal certainly, some older than 18 do not. And in a perfect world, this is something that we could test. But for a variety of practical and legal reasons, we can't, so we use a proxy.

NBA teams are radically different. They do not need proxies to tell them which players should or should not be drafted, because their scouting departments already provide that information. Pre-draft evaluations entail exhaustive reviews of game tape; private workouts; interviews with prospective draft picks, as well as their coaches, families, and friends; and even cognitive and psychological examinations—all done to specifically measure the ability of that player to succeed in the NBA. In short, the behavior of NBA teams contradicts the very premise of an age proxy.

Moreover, to the extent teams want to avoid mistakes in drafting, perhaps they should hire better scouts. Consider the long list of college seniors who NBA teams wrongly predicted would become stars: Ed O'Bannon, Mateen Cleaves, Trajan Langdon, Troy Bell, Reece Gaines, Rafael Arajuo--this list could go on for pages. An age floor would not have stopped teams from selecting these players. Along those lines, sometimes it isn’t about the player’s age; it’s about others' ability to measure his talent.

And this begs a question: why preclude 18-year old basketball players from earning a paycheck when 18-year olds can earn an income doing just about anything else sports or entertainment related? Players in baseball, hockey, soccer, golf, and tennis, can all earn millions by age 18, and some at earlier ages. Teenagers can even become professional boxers and repeatedly punch and get punched in the head, and yet they do not encounter the same moral outrage experienced by those who seek to take jump shots on NBA courts.

Of course, if we believe the opponents to allowing recent high school graduates in the NBA Draft, we would also believe that high school players tend to be less mature and law-abiding than is the average NBA player. But since when did when did age and college experience prove predictive of NBA player behavior? Latrell Sprewell, a college graduate, choked his coach at age 28. Ruben Patterson, also a college graduate, pled guilty to attempted rape and became a registered sex offender at age 25. And with two years of college credit in tow, a 24-year old Ron Artest attacked a fan in Detroit. In contrast, NBA players without college educations have been, by in large, a model group of citizens. In fact, of the 36 high school players who have been eligible to be picked over the last 10 years, only four have encountered any criminal crimes, and in the case of both DeShawn Stevenson and Kobe Bryant, those charges were subsequently dropped.

Lastly, remember that education is not a “one-shot” deal in life. A number of NBA players have gone back to college later in their careers, after they have made their millions. Sometimes the most intelligent course of action is playing first and studying second. That seems especially true given the real possibility of suffering a career-ending injury at any time on the basketball court: if that injury occurs on an NBA court, the player has a guaranteed contract, likely worth millions of dollars; if it happens on a college court, well, let's hope his grades are good (which is not likely given draconian time constraints on his studies: the average Division I basketball player spends 40-50 hours per week playing games, practicing, attending team meetings, lifting weights, and traveling, at the same time most colleges and universities prohibit all their other students from working in excess of 10-20 hours per week; no wonder why of the 65 teams that participated in the men's 2005 NCAA Tournament, 42 of them failed to graduate even half of their players.).

Despite the irrationality and unfairness of an age floor, the NBA contends that it has a legal right to collectively-bargain one, and it cites the National Football League’s recent judicial victory over an amateur player, Maurice Clarett, who sought to challenge an age floor. But remember: the legal precedent "established" by Clarett v. NFL is only the ruling of one U.S. federal court of appeals; there are 11 other ones that might disagree if presented with the same or similar facts. Moreover, while Clarett had to argue a hypothetical, a banned high school basketball player would possess 10 years of incontrovertible evidence: those who skipped college are the best group of players in the NBA.

The legal argument will also contemplate how the NBA possesses an economic monopoly on pro basketball. While it is technically correct that a banned 18-year old could play in Europe or in the minor leagues, there is an astronomical pay disparity between playing in the NBA and playing in those venues. Put differently, they are not substitute employment opportunities, and there is real economic harm in the disparity. Just consider this: the average first round pick in tonight’s draft will earn $1.6 million next season; if instead he could only play professionally in the CBA or the NBDL, he would make between $20,000 and $35,000. If he went to Europe, he would be lucky to break $75,000 in his first season. And then add to that lost endorsement opportunities, and the economic harm is even greater. Really, this isn't a matter of apples and oranges. It's one of apples and tic-tacs, and that is often a tell-tale sign of a group boycott from an economic monopoly.

Nevertheless, tonight’s NBA draft may prove to be the last one where the optimal draft group--high school seniors--can participate. Maybe high school seniors aren't the ones who need more education.

See Update 7/28/2005: NBA Player Arrest Study and Age/Education


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