Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Congressman wants to know why a qualified 18-year-old cannot play in the NBA

Evan Weiner
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A Congressman wants to know why a qualified 18-year-old cannot play in the NBA

June 4, 3:44 PM

It was inevitable that one day Congress would be calling on National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern and ask him why his league doesn’t hire qualified 18-year-old high school graduates to play in the league. Congressman Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, wants to know how Stern and the National Basketball Players Association came up with the rule in the collective bargaining process and his office is checking out whether the rule is legal even though it was ratified by the owners and players as part of the collective bargaining process in 2005. To get into the NBA, a player has to be one year out of high school and 19 during his rookie season.

Stern is on record as wishing the entry age into the NBA was 20, not 19. The present collective bargaining agreement is done in 2011.

The real reason that Stern wanted a 19-year-old entry rule was economical. NBA owners don’t want to pay an 18-year-old to sit on the bench or apprenticing. A player can develop his skills in college and spare an NBA owner research and development costs. That is the real reason qualified 18 year olds cannot work in the NBA. It has nothing to do with maturity although that is an excuse that people who love basketball have bought hook, line and sinker.

The 19-year-old entry into the NBA was something Stern very much wanted. He had been complaining for years that allowing 18-year-olds to enter the league right out of high school was wrong although Stern did not provide any evidence that having 18-year-old employees playing for NBA franchises was an unwise policy. It must have been good to be National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern when he reached a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players in 2005. The NBA strongman snapped his fingers and the National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter jumped and agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement that stated high-school graduates could no longer apply for a job in Stern's domain starting in 2006.Stern didn't want new high-school grads in his league because he says it's not good for his business to have his franchises send scouts to high school basketball games.But Stern did welcome 18-year-olds in his league for a final time in 2005-06 with the knowledge that if any of them are any good, he would market their likenesses globally so the NBA can make a buck off them. Stern defended his hypocritical stance by saying that once a player joins the NBA, he has full membership rights.Just as Stern got his way, the United States Pentagon decided to go after the same high-school-student pool that Stern decided was too young, immature and unproven for his franchise owners and the high rollers who buy NBA tickets whether they are in the comfort and safety of a luxury box or sitting in seats with WiFi-equipped waiter service.Stern repeatedly said that there is no room for recent high-school graduates in his domain. Perhaps, the new graduates were better off in Iraq or Afghanistan. The Defense Department started to market military service to 16- and 17-year-olds with the hope that high-school seniors will sign up for the military upon graduation.The Defense Department was working with a private marketing company to create a database of high-school and college students. The Defense Department was trying to identify potential recruits by getting information such as birth dates, Social Security numbers, e-mail addresses, grade-point averages, ethnicity and subjects the students are studying.The military some information already on potential recruits through the No Child Left Behind Act. Military recruiters have called students' homes trying to find 18-year-olds to join the armed forces.Last time anyone looked, basic training was a lot tougher than any NBA training camp. Qualifying to become an Army Ranger is harder than making the Orlando Magic and sitting on the bench at 18.While the United States was sending 18-year-olds into harm's way, Stern was banishing 18-year-olds from his league. Maybe Stern is trying to shield them from the Knicks City Dancers or the Lakers Cheerleaders. He said it does not send a good message that his league's scouts are in high-school gyms looking at players. One has to wonder what Stern thinks about the Defense Department's recruiting techniques.

Congressman Cohen is also wondering about that and the sports versus military service qualifications aspect of the collective bargaining agreement could be a key reason that the NBA's rule has attracted his attention.What was even more baffling was how NBA-beat writers and sports-radio talk-show hosts bought into Stern's argument, and how NBA basketball will benefit from not having 18-year-olds in a 30-team league. Basketball, both on the college and NBA level, is entertainment, that's all. Yes, billions of dollars flow into the industry, but it's not the real world.Stern is the keeper of entertainment. How can he welcome an 18-year-old into his league this year, and then deprive another one of the same chance the next? Is an 18-year-old old enough to serve his country, but not old enough to play basketball?There is something very wrong with that picture. But neither Stern nor Hunter really care about the 18-year-old player. The NBA owners got cost control and the NBA players continued to make millions.

It is too bad that Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, who decided to enter the 2007 NBA Draft after their freshmen seasons in college, didn’t go up to the podium at the theatre in Madison Square Garden in New York after their names were called, shake hands with Commissioner David Stern and said, “Thanks Mr. Stern and thanks to you and National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter for selling us out and costing us millions of dollars.”

Both Oden and Durant could have been in the NBA in 2006-07, but they were not allowed to work in Stern’s business because Stern decided he didn’t want 18-year-olds around and Hunter suddenly agreed as 18-year-old high school graduates were barred from entering the workforce because of a new collective bargaining agreement.

Hunter had said he was against Stern’s proposal to raise the NBA’s minimum age entry from 18 to 20 and in fact, he was against raising the age minimum at all. But in the 2005 agreement Hunter traded off 18 year old entry for other benefits which meant that Oden, Durant and for the foreseeable future any talented high school senior who had the ability would not be eligible to play in the NBA under the terms of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Had the agreement been in place in 1995, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James would have had to sit out a year or go to college or go to Europe or play for the Harlem Globetrotters (like Wilt Chamberlain did until he became NBA eligible) or in the Continental Basketball Association. There was not a minor league option for either Garnett or Bryant in those days.

Lebron has been an NBA selling point since the day he declared himself eligible for the NBA Draft and just in case you haven’t noticed, after Lebron arrived in Cleveland in 2005, the Gund Brothers sold the franchise to Michigan businessman Dan Gilbert for $375 million. It’s doubtful that the Gunds would have been able to get that much money for the team without James.

Stern had no problem using the high school graduate James in marketing opportunities and James’ marketing partners had no problems that he was 18 and barely out of high school. Stern has never had any problems with the great 18-year-olds who bring back a return on the investment. It’s the ones who don’t that cause difficulties.

But all 18-year-olds do make decisions. Some are good, some are bad. That’s life. Major League Baseball signs 18 year olds, Freddie Adu played in Major League Soccer at 14, the National Hockey League draft includes 18-year-olds, and there are younger people on the tennis and golf tours. An 18 year old can join the military and vote and is considered an adult.

Because sports is filled with emotion and rationality is never applied to the business, you end up with inequities like the NBA barring 18-year-olds and the National Football League having a rule where entry players need three years of college before joining the group.

In 2004, the NFL went to court to in an attempt to stop Maurice Clarett and Mike Williams from entering that year’s draft because they had not been in college and playing football for three years since high school graduation which was and remains the league rule for qualification to play. A lower court found in favor of Clarett and Williams but a three judge panel appeals court which included Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor overturned the lower court ruling and reinstated its rule.

Stern has rattled off numerous reasons when asked about the age minimum including how he didn’t want NBA scouts in high school gyms or how some parents of an 11 year old said that their son was going to be in the NBA and other hard to believe rationales. But he never addressed the real reason the he and his NBA owners wanted the age restriction.


NBA owners had rolled the dice on a number of players like Taj McDavid, Leon Smith and Korleone Young who came out of high school and were busts. Jermaine O’Neal floundered on Portland’s bench during his first contract, and then became an all-star with Indiana when Portland ownership decided not to pursue him when his contract ended. Portland did all the research and development on O’Neal and Indiana got the benefit. Chris Antsey, Kendrick Perkins and Kwame Brown did not become All-Stars but there are many who are drafted at 19, 20 and 21 in the same boat.

It was not the rookie contract that bothers Stern and the owners, it was the second contract. O’Neal showed nothing in Portland, yet his original contract was up when he was 21 and he had ability, the question then becomes what do I pay him and for how long. The Toronto Raptors had the same problem with Tracy Mc Grady. Orlando signed Mc Grady

The thinking was this. If Stern and the owners could push back the age minimum, they could also push back the time when a player could become a free agent whether it was restricted after three years or full free agency after four seasons. It’s easier to evaluate a slightly older player when it comes to offer that player a second contract. They would also get free research and development from colleges and universities. Players can get better or worse in the college game and NBA owners didn’t have to pay them millions to learn the business.

It’s all about money.

Only a handful of 18-year-olds are good enough for the NBA.
So Oden and Durant are deprived of making a few million at the age of 18. They will get their fair share, if they choose to do so, starting at the end of June when they are drafted. But what if they suffered career threatening or ending injuries in their year at school? Would the NBA care? Probably not. Maybe someone would take them on the second round where there is almost no financial risk.

It’s all about money.

Oddly enough Oden had a knee injury and doctors in Portland shut him down forcing him to miss his rookie season with the Trail Blazers.

Some teenagers are circumventing the NBA and have or are heading to Europe where there is no age restriction. The NBA does not have to pay for research and development in European leagues. One 17-year-old, Jeremy Tyler is skipping his senior year at San Diego High School to try his hand in Europe. Last year, Brandon Jennings decided to skip college ball after high school and sign with Lottomatica Roma. Jennings spend a lot of time on the bench because the team didn’t want to spent time developing a player who was going to be there one year only and head to the NBA. In a sense the European leagues are experiencing the same problem that major college programs are witnessing with star players coming in for one year and then departing.

The threat of Congressional hearings over whether a few talented players who are 18 and recent high school grads who cannot work in the NBA will probably not change Stern or his owners minds about their rule. Congress cannot impose workplace conditions on the NBA although a great deal of Stern’s success in turning around a moribund league that was on the ropes in 1983 was because of the 1984 Cable TV Act and the 1986 Tax Act. But Congress can pressure Stern and the National Basketball Players Association to revise the present collective bargaining agreement or suggest that 18-year-olds should be brought back into the league as part of the next bargaining pact.

Stern is, of course, a lobbyist and knows his way around Washington and the Congress. The House Judiciary Committee would be his first stop if there is a hearing. It would be interesting to hear Stern’s reasons for keeping 18-year-olds out and if one of those reasons is the economics of developing a player.

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