WASHINGTON-Congress is once again poking its head into the sports arena.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., sent a letter to the National Basketball Association criticizing its "19 plus 1" rule, which requires players to be 19 years old and one year removed from high school to be eligible for the NBA draft.
"[It] is an unfair restriction on the rights of these young men to pursue their intended career," Cohen's letter said. "I ask that this policy be repealed when the NBA completes its new collective bargaining agreement with the NBA Player's Association."
Lawmakers have become bolder addressing sports issues over the last few years. In 2005, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, criticized college football's Bowl Championship Series and threatened hold hearings. Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., once wrote a letter to Major League Baseball saying Congress had jurisdiction to investigate MLB's drug-testing policies. Steroids in baseball became the subject of many congressional hearings, with top players such as Roger Clemens, Jose Canseco, and Rafael Palmeiro summoned to testify on Capitol Hill.
NBA Commissioner David Stern said his league's four-year-old rule is a business decision: "We like to see our players in competition after high school." He said he was even considering raising the age limit to 20.
Kobe Bryant, who led the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA title Sunday night, and the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, the league's Most Valuable Player for 2009, entered the NBA draft straight out of high school before the rule was enacted, but the expectation now is that high school players will choose to play one year in college before making the jump to the professional level.
Cohen argued that forcing a talented basketball player to wait for a year is unfair and creates problems: "Few other professional sports leagues prohibit adults from entering their league on the basis of age."
Stern pointed out that Congress has a minimum age of 25: "I don't know why our founders decided that age 25 was good for Congress, but I guess they thought that was about maturity. For us, it's a kind of basketball maturity."
Steven Broderick, Cohen's communications director, said it is a fundamental issue of fairness, and comparing a constitutional requirement and a business decision is like comparing apples and oranges.
Mike Lopresti, a national sportswriter for the Gannett News Service, said, "Anyone who saw the Roger Clemens' hearings and watched various representatives turn steroids into a partisan issue split across party lines would not be especially confident whenever Congress wanders into sport." He said Congress should stick with fixing the economy.
Broderick said this is not about sports, telling me, "This is about a particular industry that has an age discrimination policy aimed at people who are clearly talented and could play the sport and be a part of the profession."
A statement from Cohen's office said in the midst of many high-priority legislative issues this summer they simply wanted to open a dialogue about the NBA rule before the league's Players Association began hammering out a new bargaining agreement.
Instead of contributing to a teenager's education, Cohen said, a "one-and-done" system has developed, in which talented athletes are not interested in further education, but only attend college to complete the mandatory year before joining the NBA.
Standout players like O.J. Mayo from the University of Southern California and Derek Rose from the University of Memphis followed the one-and-done method at their respective colleges before becoming high NBA draft picks. Both Mayo and Rose are now being investigated for college academic eligibility discrepancies.
Cohen argues that the current system serves the financial interests of the universities more so than the student's interest, and has contributed to scandals within the sports programs of schools that just want to grab a top high school player for a year.
The NBA has not yet issued a formal response and Cohen's office is investigating the possibility of a congressional hearing and future legislation.