As another NBA draft approaches, the discussion turns once again to the league’s age limit. This year’s draft will be stocked with players who spent only one year in college, the current required minimum in order to be selected. It hasn’t always been that way.
Before 1971, only players four years removed from high school graduation could enter the league. But then Spencer Haywood took his case all the way to the Supreme Court and won, allowing college underclassmen to enter the draft as “hardship” cases. Then came players who never stepped on a college court, but only a few took that route initially, most notably Moses Malone in the 1970s and Shawn Kemp in the late ’80s. It wasn’t until the mid-’90s that the floodgates opened. First it was Kevin Garnett then Kobe Bryant, followed by a slew of others bypassing college for the NBA with varying degrees of success. Many washed out of the league in short order, and the general sense was that something needed to be done to stop the flood.
In 2005, the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union required players to attend college for at least one year before entering the league. It was supposed to be better for college basketball and help better prepare players for life in the pros. Instead, college basketball turned into a one-and-done stepping-stone to the NBA. Yes, the rule has filtered out some players who weren’t ready, but it isn’t clear who has truly benefited from the rule.
Now, under new Commissioner Adam Silver, the NBA would like to raise that limit from one year to at least two. Again, the argument is that it helps college basketball (slightly more legitimate this time) and raises the quality of incoming players to the NBA (a dubious claim).
The question to consider, though, is whether it is fair. Golf, tennis, hockey, and baseball all offer opportunities to the best high school players. In the non-sports world, if a high school graduate could start a business or make good money at a job, he or she would be allowed and even encourage to do so. So why is it OK for the NBA to limit the right of qualified talent to earn and succeed—or fail trying?
It seems more like an effort to protect NBA general managers from their own inability to draft wisely and a play to keep more talent in the NCAA to make more money off the players. The two years in college stipulation is easy to defend because college is a good thing for most people. Scholarship athletes are seen as receiving an opportunity. But what if that “opportunity” is actually an obstacle to success?
This is more than a debate between wealthy decision makers; it is a question of ethics and justice. There are victims to these decisions: the athlete who goes to college and injures his knee before he can earn a penny for his family, the player who is a poor student and drops out before he can maximize his talent to make something of himself, or the gifted player who wants play at the highest level but instead must attend college. The limitation the NBA places on young athletes benefits the powerful and hurts the weak, and that is never OK.