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Friday, January 12, 2007
The Legal and Social Policy Implications of Bill Walker's Knee Injury

In last Saturday's game at Texas A&M, Kansas State freshman Bill Walker tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The injury ends the 06-07 season for the dynamic 6-6 Walker, whose play had drawn comparisons to a young Vince Carter and who ESPN's Chad Ford ranked as the third-best NBA Draft prospect among college freshmen (right after Kevin Durant and Greg Oden).

An ACL tear is obviously a serious injury, particularly for a player whose game is based largely on explosiveness and quickness (Celtics fans have been dealing with the same worries for the last two days after Tony Allen's terrible tear of the ACL, medial meniscus, and lateral meniscus). Perhaps the best news for Walker is that he suffered a tear of his ACL in his right knee back in 2003, and was able to fully recover. But you never know what will happen after such a serious knee injury. Just ask Randy Livingston, who, back in 1993, tore his ACL before his first college practice and was never the same.

So what's the legal angle with Walker's injury? He was considering a challenge to the new NBA age limit (and thanks to Michael Ryan of Bearcat News for the link). The age limit, which is contained in Article X:I(b)(i) of the NBA-NBPA collective bargaining agreement, requires that an amateur American player be at least 19 years old on December 31 of the year of the NBA draft and that at least one NBA season has passed from when he graduated from high school, or when he would have graduated from high school, and the NBA draft. The NBA has construed it to preclude Walker's eligibility in the 2007 NBA Draft, claiming that his high school class should be considered the class of 2008 (even though he has been a freshman at Kansas State this season). We discussed the specifics of this issue back last July, but basically the NBA contends that Walker--who prior to this injury projected as a first round pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, if eligible--did not complete his senior year on time last spring, while Walker has argued, correctly so in my opinion, that he would have graduated last spring, but for a transcript error made by academic administrators. Walker's argument was endorsed by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, whose expertise in his case was to assess Walker's credits and which obviously has no stake in whether Walker could turn pro.

I should stress that had Walker challenged the new rule, he would have challenged its application rather than its underlying legal merits. Granted, any time an application of a rule is challenged, its underlying legal merits can be called into question, but Walker's lawsuit probably would have been limited in scope. And in truth, it likely would have been redressed in mediation before any litigation commenced. Had Walker and counsel met with NBA officials, I suspect those officials would have ultimately acquiesced, since allowing Walker would not have in any way jeopardized the rule. It would have also, in my opinion, been the correct and fair move to make.

But Walker no longer seems poised to commence any lawsuit or negotiation. Such a serious injury alters his draft stock, at least for this year. He will probably spend the next eight months rehabbing his knee rather than dealing with a controversial lawsuit that may no longer be in his best interests.

We might also consider the social policy implications of Walker's plight. Here we have a 19-year-old man who has suffered a terrible injury that threatens what appears to be his most marketable and cherished skill: the ability to excel at basketball. Walker has presumably invested much of his life in honing that skill, probably at the expense of honing other talents and perhaps those skills that are scholastically-related. I have never met him, but like Arthur Agee and William Gates in the extraordinary documentary Hoop Dreams (1994), he has probably been "encouraged" by coaches and sneaker representatives and other self-interested (selfish?) actors to focus on basketball. The advice seemed to be working. But what happens if his basketball career is now over, or if he is no longer the next Vince Carter? Will those same people care about him? If not, who will?

That point lends itself to another point that is closer to the law: consider the human costs of an age-eligibility rule. If Walker had suffered the exact same injury while playing for an NBA team, he would likely have millions of guaranteed dollars coming his way under an existing contract. I know, money doesn't make one whole (despite what we tell our students in torts), but it certainly makes one better off--especially when one comes from financially-disadvantaged circumstances, as do many premier basketball players, and especially when one has invested so much of his learning time to a sport rather than to scholastics or other endeavors. I talked about these points in my posts Not Being Randy Livingston: The Jonathan Bender Story and The Power of Situation: Joakim Noah's Decision to Stay at Florida.

What will be Walker's life story if, because of this injury, he never earns a dime playing basketball? Should we, as sports fans, bear responsibility in making sure that he does alright, or is it okay that we will simply forget about him?


Aren't there insurance policies designed to protect athletes for just this type of situation?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 1/12/2007 2:28 PM  

Walker could have been in the NBA already. He's older than Lakers' 2nd year player Andrew Bynum. But he was held back in school so he could play basketball against younger kids. He played last summer in "under 17" tourneys even though he was nearly 19 (the AAU ridiculous "grade exemption" rule).

If he'd had his choice, he'd be in high school this year with his buddy, fellow 19 year old OJ Mayo. But he was ruled ineligible because one of his redshirt years was too late and they ruled he'd already reached his limit in high school. So he took off to K State.

It's history revision to claim that he would have been in the NBA by now if not for the rule. He was a high junior last year and only tried to get graduated when he was ruled ineligible for another year.

The injury may be tragic for him, but draft eligibility issue is a consequence of his (and his handlers') manipulation of the system so he could earn a reputation by dominating younger players. Don't blame everyone else.

see: "age groups" at

Anonymous Tom Scott -- 1/12/2007 2:34 PM  

Bill Walker whether he plays in the NBA or not know will probably get a free education form Kansas State, becuase of this injury. That is one benefit he gets form going to college this year. Yes, probably he would ahve millions had he gone, but this way he porbably wont have to pay for college

Anonymous Anonymous -- 1/12/2007 2:41 PM  

Thank you for these excellent comments. I appreciate each of you taking the time to respond.

Anonymous 1,

That is a good point. There are insurance polices designed to protect star amateur athletes for injuries while in school. However, my understanding is that these policies are quite expensive to purchase. I have no idea if Bill Walker and his family could afford such coverage.


I'm not sure if Walker could already be in the NBA. Significantly, the NBA claims that he could not. While I agree with you that he would have a good argument under the existing rule, it would take some effort and cost on his part to obtain eligibility. As to his eligibility under the old rule, Article X(5)(A), he needed a high school degree or its equivalence, and he obviously needed to satisfy that rule by the 2005 NBA Draft (the last draft in which the old rule was in effect). What in the record suggests that he could have obtained either by that draft?

Anonymous 2,

That is a good point, he probably will be able to obtain a free education from Kansas State. But is he academically-prepared for a college education? I imagine his success in school will largely reflect how much focus he has put on school up to this point. And perhaps the best measure would be to assess the academic and professional success of other college athletes who got hurt while playing.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 1/12/2007 5:30 PM  

"What in the record suggests that he could have obtained either by that draft?"

I'm afraid you missed my point. My point was that Walker, who I'll repeat is older than the Lakers Andrew Bynum, could have been eligible to be drafted two years ago had he not been held back in school a couple years early in his career.
Unfortunately, "redshirting" kids so they can play basketball against younger kids is all too common. Maybe Walker got burned by this. Or maybe he would never have earned the reputation he has had he been playing against kids his own age.

Ditto for OJ Mayo, who will enter the draft at the earliest 3 years after Bynum (who is almost exactly the same age).

Anonymous Tom Scott -- 1/13/2007 12:16 PM  

Re: Insurance for exceptional athletes

It appears as though the NCAA has a program in place that will even help finance a policy.

"Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance
The NCAA sponsors a disability insurance program for exceptional student-athletes at NCAA institutions in the sports of football, men's and women's basketball, baseball and men's ice hockey.

The program enables qualifying student-athletes, as approved by the program administrator, to purchase disability insurance contracts with preapproved financing, if necessary. This program will provide the student-athlete with the opportunity to protect against future loss of earnings as a professional athlete, due to a disabling injury or sickness that may occur during the collegiate career."

Anonymous Anonymous -- 1/13/2007 12:55 PM  


Good points and thanks for the clarification. I would add that Walker being held back to play against younger players (if, in fact, that was the only reason why he was held back--were his academics also at issue?) seems sadly indicative of the Hoop Dreams culture in which many of these players find themselves.

Along those lines, it's tough to blame Walker, at whatever age he was held back, when presumably there were older and more responsible persons he entrusted to look out for his best interests. Was it really his decision to stay back a year?

And I can only imagine what Walker must have felt when he was held back: yeah, he was probably excited at the prospect of enhancing his performance by playing against younger others, but I wonder if he also felt that his entire future and perhaps even the futures of those same persons he entrusted were now based on his basketball development? That seems like an awfully big burden for anyone, and one that almost always leads to great disappointment, even bitterness.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 1/13/2007 12:57 PM  

All the more reason to invest in the certainty of education than gamble on the vagaries of professional sports. You're very right to ask who's going to care about him if he can't play basketball. I might, if he could construct a sophisticated financial analysis model, or write 6,000 words on the implications of a fight between Hamas and Fatah, or if he could sell several million dollars worth of software to a Fortune 500 company. We've seen many times that the sudden wealth that a professional sports contract bestows is no guarantee of financial independence. I'm no expert on the fine points of sports farm teams and scouting, but I can see that it's the rare athlete who can negotiate a successful career and continue to succeed afterwards.


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