There's a weird situation in which NBA players are doing more to break up one of the NCAA cartel's rues than any other party.
An attorney for the NBA Players Association said he expects the union and the NBA will clash on the age limit for the draft in the next round of collective bargaining. The union will seek to have the age limit for the draft lowered from 19 while NBA owners have expressed a desire to raise it to at least 20.
Union attorney Gary Kohlman wonders why the best path to professionalism for promising basketball players is an NCAA system in which schools collude to limit their compensation while teenagers in other professions face no such limitations.
"Capitalism means that if you're 17, 18 years old and you're a geek and you want to drop out of college and invent Apple or something else, you can do it," Kohlman said, according to the Associated Press. "In this country, you can do that. And there's nothing stopping you from doing it. If you're an unbelievable blues singer at 17, 18, 19 years old, you can go out and make a fortune."
It's easy to understand why the NBA and NCAA prefer a higher age limit for the draft.
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Older players are less risky for the NBA to sign to contracts because their pro potential is easier to evaluate and the NBA has the NCAA to run its minor-league system at no cost to the league. Colleges get to keep the best players in school longer at below-market compensation levels, thus increasing the direct and indirect value of their profit-making businesses.
But the players' union is taking a principled stand when it seeks to lower the limit. Current NBA players gain nothing by doing allowing younger and cheaper players to compete with them for jobs. Kohlman noted that LeBron James, who entered the NBA out of high school, now is a union vice president. But superstar players such as James will always get the maximum salaries; it's the rank-and-file players who have to worry about a lower age limit.
Perhaps NBA players' solidarity with future pros goes beyond economics. Said Kolhman about the age limit: "If they were white and hockey players, they would be out there playing. If they were white and baseball players, they would be out there playing. Because most of them are actually African-American and are in a sport and precluded from doing it, they have to go into this absurd world of playing for one year. That's just total complete hypocrisy."
The racial angle misses the mark, at least in the context Kohlman is using it here.
It's true that a substantial portion of the public heaps scorn on basketball and football players who have the audacity to believe they should be able to fully participate in capitalism, and that those players are mostly black. Those same people have little to say about about players in baseball, hockey, soccer, tennis, etc seeking their market worth at 18-years older or younger, and those athletes are mostly white.
But the disparity in public reaction has more to do with selfishness than race. People love their college basketball and football teams and rail against any perceived threats to the system. Lots of fans are OK with players being unfairly compensated if it means dear old State U. keeps getting the best players and they can watch the best “amateur” football and basketball players entertain them.
The NCAA, NBA and NFL like the current setup because of money. If there was a way for the NCAA to make money by enforcing sham amateurism rules in tennis and soccer, and a professional league that also benefited from that arrangement, then the NCAA and professional tennis and soccer leagues there would conspire to make going to school the only viable path to the pros.
It's heartening that NBA players who have the power to fight the system are doing so for athletes who aren't yet members of their union. Football players aren't eligible for the NFL draft until three years after high school and I doubt you'd ever see the NFL players union fighting to make them eligible sooner. NFL players may be able to relate to once being funneled into an unfair system, but that doesn't mean they want to create a pool of younger and cheaper players to threaten their jobs.
It's possible that the NBA union is making noise about the age limit so as to gain concessions in other areas but I doubt it. NBA players have been agitating for this change for a while. If they continue to do so it makes them the most principled parties in this age limit charade.