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Tuesday, June 27, 2006
The Role of Race and Culture in how Fans Regard the NBA Draft Age Limit and Dress Code

Rick Maese, a columnist for the Baltimore Sun, has an extensive piece today on the NBA Draft (which will be held tomorrow) and how the new elevated age floor may reflect dimminishing player autonomy and underlying issues of race and culture ("NBA Draft Doesn't Get Any Better with Age," Baltimore Sun, June 27, 2006). Maese interviews me for his column, and cites my law article, The Reckless Pursuit of Dominion: A Situational Analysis of the NBA and Diminishing Player Autonomy, 8 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Labor & Emloyment Law __ (forthcoming, 2006), which can be downloaded at this link, and also my mini-study last year on NBA player arrests, which found no correlation between an NBA player spending more time in college and dimminished arrest propensity.

Here is an excerpt from Maese's column:

The dress code was silly, but this age-restriction rule is more absurd.

"Just compare it to other sports," says Michael McCann, a law professor at Mississippi College School of Law. "It begs the question, why do we have this in certain sports but not all of them? Why not for golf, tennis, baseball, hockey, any of these sports?"

League officials believe the new rule will improve the quality of play, but excluding 18-year-olds is just another example of the NBA exerting control over its players. But there's no justifiable reason for an age restriction. I happen to like the idea of an 18-year-old choosing to play college ball, but I recognize that it's not always in the best interest of the player. And I also realize that it shouldn't be solely Stern's decision to make.

McCann is vested in the topic. He was a part of Maurice Clarett's legal team when the football player unsuccessfully tried to challenge the NFL's age-restriction rule two years ago.

"Generally speaking, people ... go to college, we mature and we look back at it all as a good life experience," he says. "There's this empirical view that people who go to college do better in life. But we can't mistake the experiences of athletes with the experience that the rest of us have. It's a radically different world. There's a disconnect that we must recognize.

"You also wonder if there's a race issue," he continued. "This all goes to an underlying stereotype of what we think about urban African-American men. There may be a preconceived stereotype that they need to be in school. The facts, though, at least for basketball players, actually suggest the opposite. School isn't necessarily the best answer for everybody."

Before we get to that, you must first accept that this is, in fact, a black-white issue, as uncomfortable as that may seem. Of the 46 prep players who've been drafted since 1995, only one was white. So it's not hard to make a case that the age-restriction rule specifically targets 18-year-old black men.

The NBA sold the public on the rule based on the idea that these young athletes would be better served by at least one year of college seasoning - a preposterous notion from the beginning.

McCann studied American players over the past 15 years. He found that 41 percent of NBA players attended college for four years; the percentage of NBA players who attended college for four years and were later also arrested for some sort of misconduct was much higher - 57 percent.

Among those who skipped college, the number of arrests was disproportionately low - 8 percent of the players in the study did not attend college, but only 5 percent of those arrested skipped school.

So who exactly is more mature and equipped to handle the real world?

And who exactly is served by these age restrictions? Not the pro teams. Not the college teams. And certainly not the players. The only guess I can muster is the fan, the guy who can afford tickets and expensive merchandise, yet has trouble identifying with a culture, an athlete and a lifestyle to which he can't relate.

During the interview, I made one other point and it concerned David Stern. I noted that Stern is doing what any good commissioner is supposed to be doing: he's trying to maximize revenue for the league by appealing to fans' wants. So when we talk about the NBA pushing for a dress code and age limits, we're most likely talking about the league responding to what it perceives as in its best financial interests--a form of business behavior which, in and of itself, presents nothing nefarious.

But that behavior only begs a question: Why do fans want a dress code and why do they want age limits? What do those fan desires say about them, about us? And at what point do stop deferring to "business reasons" and start asking the harder, underlying questions?

Update: Dick Vitale--previously the most ardent critic of high schoolers jumping straight to the NBA--has done a 180 and now believes that high schoolers should be able to enter the NBA. Wow, I'm almost speechless, although in fairness, he did have some reservations about the blanket, absolute age prohibition back in April 2005.


The fans of Atlanta, Portland, Toronto, and other teams want them to stop drafting on potential and start drafting players who actually help a team which championships. Which has not happened during the recent prep player boom except for once, and Kobe had possibly the greatest center ever as a sidekick.

Anonymous Taco John -- 6/27/2006 12:23 PM  

Private league. Private rules. No government funding. For all who say that an age limit is absurd, unconscionable, crazy, etc., why can't you just accept the fact that not all rules are meant to be broken? This is not a crime, these are private organizations. They are doing nothing illegal so why don't you just drop it? Or, are you just trying to create chaos so you can see your own name in ink?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/27/2006 1:01 PM  

There is no question that race and culture have a huge influence on how fans look at age and dress. There are many studies showing how race has a much larger influence on attitudes than people think. It's hard to talk about race and sports, though, because sports fans get so defensive about it, almost as if they are threatened by the topic (like the person commenting directly above me). It's like they have a blind spot to race and want to latch onto the old "it's a private organization so leave them alone" refrain, just like they did when "private" restuarants used to discriminate against black people.

Great post.

Steven P.

Anonymous Steven P. -- 6/27/2006 1:51 PM  

Steven P: Please tell me what (if any) rules that a private sports organization can set for either its employees or independent contractors. I mean any rules. I would love to hear what you would do if you were "in charge." According to your logic, all rules are invalid if they can tangentially relate to race. Last time I checked, age was not a civil right brutha. By the way, "black" is politically incorrect.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/27/2006 2:00 PM  

Prof. McCann,

Why do you claim it's not in the league's interest to limit young players? It seems like it could very well be in the league's economic interest if it lowers the variance of output teams get for their investments.

The older an athlete is and the more he's played against equal competition, the easier it is to project his ultimate talent level. If leagues agree to not sign younger players, they're eliminating higher risk investments. The cost to the league is the lost revenue from not having those players in the league one extra year. For a very select group of players, e.g., Lebron James, this revenue loss might be significant. But overall, the league appears to have concluded that minimizing risk is more valuable than trying to find an needle in a haystack. Why do you assume that the leagues have got this calculation wrong?

Of course, your racial explanation could also be correct, but I don't see how you dismiss the ecnomic rationale out of hand.

Anonymous Pete K -- 6/27/2006 2:06 PM  

Prof. McCann: You said, "Why not for golf, tennis, baseball, hockey, any of these sports?" No disrespect, but are you sure?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/27/2006 2:30 PM  

Pete K,

You raise some excellent points, and while I believe your underlying analytical framework is sound, the data has not shown that the older an amateur player is the easier he is to project as an NBA player. In fact, NBA GMs seem to miss as often, if not more often, on college juniors and seniors than those who skipped college (if you have time, please check out the links below for empirical evidence).

Moreover, and as of last June, players who attempted the jump from high school to the NBA averaged more points, rebounds, and assists than the average NBA player or the average player of any other age group. And that includes the high school players who failed to make the NBA and who were counted as "O" in the analysis (unlike all of the college underclassmen and graduates who failed to make the NBA and who were not counted as 0--meaning the high schoolers have done really well as a group).

So the idea that high schoolers are higher risk investments hasn't proven empirically true, a conclusion which invites inquiry as to why it is a good idea to ban them.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 6/27/2006 2:32 PM  

What about the "rights" of the individual?

Does not an individual(athlete) have the right to choose employment (if selected) by an employer (team)?

Anonymous Richard Mock -- 6/27/2006 2:36 PM  

Forget the links in my last comment:

Also, in response to Anonymous's comment after Pete K's comment:

The NFL and the NBA are the only major American sports organizations that prohibit all players, regardless of skill or talent, from entrance until a prescribed period after high
school graduation.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 6/27/2006 2:36 PM  


You raise an excellent point, and it is one that my good friend Alan Milstein has often talked about: By preventing amateur players from negotiating with multiple teams, pro sports drafts limit player salaries and employment autonomy. For that reason, some believe they comprise illegal monopsonies: a league controls the buying of talent, but not the selling, and it is the only source to which the players may sell their services.

Check out Alan's post on Reggie Bush -- it really goes to your point about how drafts take away the right to select one's own employer:

Blogger Michael McCann -- 6/27/2006 2:43 PM  

Prof. McCann: ATP Tennis, PGA Tour Golf, NHL hockey, WNBA, Olympic Figure skating, MLB bat boys and International MLB draftees all have rules related to minimum age. While they do not specifically mention high school (graduation), they do specifically mention age. Are you saying that your issue is that it is related to high school graduation then as opposed to age?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/27/2006 2:54 PM  

The thing about football and the nba is that until recently neither of them had a mnor league system, where players could go if they weren't good enough for the big show. I think that has to be a huge issue as well. Obviously I am not talking about non-team sports. Baseball players can enter the draft at 18 becasue if they are playing in the minor leagues they are guarenteed money, small, but real. Maybe once the Nba's nbdl gets more legitimate they will be able to expand, and get rid of the age limit, but I think that is a big reason.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/27/2006 2:58 PM  


Yes, you are correct--the issue is the required period of time after when one graduates from high school or when one's high school class graduates from high school (if the person doesn't graduate himself).


You raise a very good point about minor leagues, and how the NCAA is essentially the minor league for the NBA and NFL, while baseball/hockey have their own professional minor league systems. It will be interesting to see how the NBDL develops and whether it becomes a legit alternative to playing college hoops.

Blogger Michael McCann -- 6/27/2006 3:03 PM  

"So the idea that high schoolers are higher risk investments hasn't proven empirically true, a conclusion which invites inquiry as to why it is a good idea to ban them."

I believe the data you're using to prove that high schoolers "pay off" as investments is the incorrect data. When a team drafts a player, the #1 concern is not the player's individual averages. It's the player's ability to add value to the team in the form of more wins and eventually championships.

With the exception of the Lakers, I don't believe any championship team in the last 20 years has had a high schooler as a major contributor on the team. In fact, I don't think any had one as a starter. The list of the great players who made the jump is littered with guys who put up big averages, command huge salaries, and never deliever: Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal, McGrady, Al Harrington, Rashad Lewis. The jury is still out on Amare Stoudamire and Dwight Howard. LeBron will almost undoubtably win a title, but he is a once in a generation player.

Whether or not it's right, moral, or even legal, I believe there is a valid reason why the NBA would want to keep high schoolers out of the draft. The drafting of high school players do not help a team succeed. And in fact, the two high school players who were drafted did not win championships with the team that drafted them. Kobe and Moses Malone were both traded before they won titles.

Anonymous Taco John -- 6/27/2006 6:53 PM  

I think we should also lower the drinking age to 17 as well. 17 year olds can enter the military (with parental consent), why can't they drink?

I think, that if you can play basketball, age shouldn't matter. Period. Age is such an arbitrary number. Why not lower the driving age as well?

Anonymous Stephen -- 6/27/2006 7:05 PM  

"Age is an arbitrary number." Stephen, you or anyone else can play as much basketball as you want. The NBA, however, has rules-obviously, rules is your problem, not age.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/27/2006 11:38 PM  

To Taco John

It's silly to limit the argument simply to championship teams, particularly if you are going to throw out one of the premier championship teams of the last 20 years that included a high school draftee as a superstar.
The ability to win a championship is not dependent on one player, it's dependent upon an organization developing a well rounded team. Consequently, a high school player could provide incredible value to his team, yet never win a championship because his organization fails to assemble a good team. The most prominent example of this is Kevin Garnett. In addition, it's unfair to compare the past 20 years when the push to draft high school players did not materialize until 1995 with the drafting of Garnett. If you look at the past decade, you would be forced to admit that the Lakers play a large role in your theory, while noting that a large number of teams that competed annually in the playoffs included a high school player.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/28/2006 11:15 AM  

What I would you do if you were a #1 draft pick talent that was forced to delay entry into the league b/c of the new rule. Would you take a scholarship at a top program for one year, with no intention of graduataion and a meager monthly stipend for rent/food but a national stage for your talents? Or would you take some endorsements, do some promotional tours and make pennies riding crappy buses from town to town in the D-League?

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