Sports Law Blog
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Thursday, June 14, 2007
Yi Jianlian's Age, NBA Employment, and Immigration Law
In the upcoming NBA Draft, Yi Jianlian, a 7'0 forward from China, will likely be among the first six or seven players selected. The Boston Celtics, which pick 5th, are said to be highly interested in him, as are the Chicago Bulls. As detailed on Rookiepedia, Yi offers an intriguing mix of size, shooting ability, and sound fundamentals. He has been compared to Pau Gasol, Toni Kukoc, and even Kevin Garnett. With such acclaim for Yi, it is not surprising to read ESPN's Chad Ford comment that "a number of NBA general managers and scouts who have followed Yi closely have said he's the third-best prospect in the draft."
But notice that we have not mentioned Yi's age as an asset. It's because there is uncertainty as to how old he actually is. His passport states that he was born on October 27, 1987, meaning that he should be 19. And the NBA believes him. So too does ESPN. But DraftExpress and NBADraft.net list him as 22. The Houston Chronicle goes further, intimating that he may be 25. Even Chinese basketball fans are not immune from confusion. All told, Yi may be as young as 19 and as old as 25. How is that possible?
Questions surround Yi's correct birthdate, his official passport in China has him listed as being born on October 27, 1987, but it has been rumored that his date of birth may have been intentionally falsified so to be eligible in junior competitions. The estimates of his birthday are between 1984 to 1987.
As noted by Tom Ziller on AOL Fanhouse, the difference between being 19 and 25 is profound when projecting a player's upside and ability to ameliorate weaknesses. For instance, if Yi lacks strong rebounding skills at 19, teams can expect that he'll improve as he fills out and works with NBA coaches; if he lacks those skills at 25, he may never develop them, or at least not to the same extent. The age discrepancy likewise changes how we gauge his past success: dominating other the competition at 19 is a lot more impressive than doing so at 25. In short, Yi is a completely different NBA prospect if he's 19 than if he is 25, or perhaps even 22.
Determining Yi's actual age may prove to be a difficult task. Indeed, in China, the accuracy of birthdates has been called into question on numerous occasions. Such accusations are especially rife with regards to the Chinese basketball program. As recently as November 2006, Xinhua, China’s national news agency, noted that birth certificates and ID cards could be forged to register for a U-18 competition and that some players even went as far as to adopt a new name. A senior Chinese Basketball Association official, Zhang Xiong, admitted that age fraud was a problem and that past youth squads had indeed included overage players.
The implications of Yi's uncertain age go beyond the basketball court. They affect whether Yi, a foreign national seeking to work in the United States on a temporary basis, can be employed by an NBA team. To work in the United States, Yi will likely pursue an "O-1 visa" which is a visa designed for a person of extraordinary ability in his field. At the very least, Yi is a lock to qualify for the lesser “P-1 visa” which is almost automatically accorded to NBA athletes under contract. Either way, a completed I-129 visa form, which is a petition for nonimigrant worker, will be required as part of the visa application process. It will be reviewed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency of the Department of Homeland Security and will explicitly ask for Yi's date of birth. If it is later determined that Yi lied about his age, he can lose his visa status and even, albeit unlikely, be deported, while his team and the NBA could face sanction if they knowingly facilitated in any deception of the U.S. government. So before Yi receives his first NBA pay check, Yi will have to reveal his actual age, or risk the consequences (as some Major League baseball players have likely done, without consequence).
It is interesting how the NBA fought so hard for a minimum age floor of 19, and yet seems oddly content with sanctioning the draft entry of a player whose age may be 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, or 25. We don't question the difficulty of obtaining Yi's age, but the NBA is well-financed business operation with business contacts throughout the world. Moreover, the league could deny Yi's eligibility until he and his representatives established greater certainty about his age. Instead, the NBA seems unmoved by the issue, which is puzzling given the ramifications that such a high draft pick could have on one of its member franchises and the credibility of the league itself. In the interest of sporting and legal integrity, we believe that it is imperative that the NBA be as vigilant with ensuring the accuracy of a player's birth date as it is with ensuring that the player meets the age floor.
[Note: Co-author Jason Chung is a graduate of McGill University and author of an article on race and the Wonderlic Exam. He is also a research assistant for Jon Hanson and Michael McCann at the Project for Law and Mind Sciences at Harvard Law School]