The merits of the new NBA age restriction

Story by Chris Graham

Michael McCann, like the rest of us, assumed that the talk about how NBA players who had entered the league straight out of high school were ruining the professional game was at least somewhat on target.

So when the law professor began to notice that his research into the impact of the influx of teen-agers on the NBA wasn’t going the way he assumed it would, he did a doubletake.

“I had expected if not the opposite conclusion, then at least a different conclusion,” said McCann, a professor at the Mississippi College School of Law, whose study of the role that high-school draftees play in the NBA dispels many of the popular conceptions about the phenomenon.

Chief among McCann’s findings – which were published in The Virginia Sports and Entertainment Law Journal in 2004 – was that players drafted out of high school perform better on balance than the average NBA player in every major statistical category.

“There are always going to be exceptions. People are going to harp on the players who didn’t do well – but they don’t like to talk about, for instance, the middle-class players, like an Eddy Curry or Tyson Chandler, guys who aren’t stars, but are good NBA players. That’s really where the debate should lie – what’s the median player? Rather than talking about LeBron James versus Korleone Young, looking at the extremes, look at the middle NBA player from high school versus the middle NBA player overall,” McCann told The Augusta Free Press.

The debate over the merits of letting recent high-school graduates enter the league is a moot one – for now, anyway. Last year, the league and the NBA Players Association agreed on a new age limit for those seeking jobs in the NBA – at 19, effectively barring high-school seniors from entering the draft or signing with teams as free agents.

The new rule took effect with last week’s NBA draft.

Rick Karcher, the director of the Center for Law and Sports at the Florida Coastal School of Law, doesn’t think the reasons often cited by NBA officials for wanting to prevent high-schoolers from being able to enter the league – that the players are socially and emotionally immature, that they’re not ready physically for the rigors of professional basketball – are the real motivation behind the rule change.

“We can all acknowledge or at least understand why an age rule benefits the league. Number one, it saves millions by not having to scout an entire pool of high-school talent across all 50 states. Number two, it completely eliminates the risks associated with drafting and signing unproven talent from a much-less competitive high-school environment. Those are the two main reasons why the league wants to do this,” Karcher said.

“To me, this has nothing to do with anything other than a business decision – saving millions not having to scout all of the high-school talent around the country and eliminating the risk of drafting high-school players,” Karcher told the AFP.

It would seem that the move would be ripe for being met with something in the way of a legal challenge – but Duke law professor Paul Haagen, among others, doesn’t foresee anything along those lines being brought up anytime soon.

“Could it be done – and can I structure that case? Yes. Is there a better factual case than there in the case brought against the NFL? I think the answer is yes – because there is a clear track record that a relatively significant if limited group of high-school players are physically and skill-wise able to play in the NBA,” Haagen said.

“But will we see anything happen on this? The basic answer is no – in large part because of the issue of the underlying fact of, why you would do it,” Haagen told the AFP.

McCann, who was part of the legal team that worked on former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett’s challenge of a similarly styled age restriction involving the NFL, agrees with Haagen’s point that the risks associated with making such a challenge would likely outweigh the potential reward of being able to begin a professional career a year early.

“I think one of the difficulties for a player to sue is that they’ll automatically be labeled a troublemaker, somebody who’s trying to break the system, a maverick. It’s going to take a lot for a 17- or 18-year-old to be a plaintiff in a litigation where much of the media and most of the fans will be immediately against him – putting a lot of pressure on him and his family,” McCann said.

“We saw that with Maurice Clarett – he immediately became vilified when he brought the lawsuit. Anybody who tries to challenge the system is deemed as a troublemaker. We’ve seen that in other contexts of the law,” McCann said.

Without a court challenge, the age rule would appear to be here to stay.

“The way I look at this now – from a bargaining standpoint, the union doesn’t have an incentive to vigorously fight the owners on this issue,” Karcher said of the NBAPA, which agreed to the rule change as part of its collective-bargaining agreement with the NBA.

“It doesn’t affect existing players at all. You’re talking about a rule that affects prospective players. Existing players are not affected by it. So the union in the bargaining process isn’t giving up much when they agree to this – and in return the existing players are getting something of value in the form of an increased percentage of league revenue from the owners,” Karcher said.

As to whether this is a good thing for all concerned or not, well, we have McCann’s study.

“A lot of these players did well – if not immediately, then one or two years after they started. So there isn’t this sense that this is a big mistake for their careers,” McCann said.

“The reality is that when you’re looking at the players who went straight from high school to the NBA, they did so because they were superstars – they were ready for the NBA, and their success bears that out,” McCann said.



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