The Changing Situation of the NBA’s Age Limit
Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 4, 2008
Situationist contributor Michael McCann was interviewed for a story in Sunday’s New York Times on high school basketball phenom Renardo Sidney and how the NBA’s age limit–which requires that a player be at least 19-years-old and at least one-year removed from high school before he can play in the NBA–affects his life and those around him. The story, titled “The Next Big Thing” and authored by Tommy Craggs, also examines the relationship between the NBA and the NCAA, as well as developing opportunities for players shut out by the NBA’s age limit to instead go to Europe for a year and earn a six-or-seven figure salary.
Here is an excerpt:
* * *
That this comes from the same groups that in 2005 cheered the adoption of the N.B.A.’s minimum-age rule, effectively forcing high-school stars to spend one year playing college basketball pro bono rather than leap directly to the N.B.A., is more than a little rich. The partnership was announced at the Final Four this year, and it was noted in passing that both Brand and the N.B.A.’s commissioner, David Stern, would prefer that the age rule be raised from 19 to 20, meaning most players would have to remain in college for two years. Colleges benefit tremendously from keeping the best players in apprenticeship for two years; the N.B.A., in turn, gets marketable commodities who’ve spent more time in the college star-making machinery, as well as proven players who aren’t being drafted purely on their potential.
The traditional justification is that colleges produce better, more well-rounded citizens, though in fact one study has suggested that the opposite may be true. In 2005, Michael McCann, then a professor at Mississippi College School of Law [and now a visiting professor at Boston College Law School], looked at 84 recent N.B.A. player arrests. He found that 57 percent of the players arrested spent four years in college; only 4.8 percent had never gone to college, significantly less than the league-wide share of prep-to-pro players (8.3 percent). In fact, one might infer from the study that the less time a player spent in college, the less likely he was to get arrested.
“The N.B.A. and the N.C.A.A. are entertainment vehicles. One pays you, one doesn’t,” says John (Sonny) Vaccaro, the 69-year-old godfather of summer basketball and the man who, in the employ of first Nike, then Adidas, then Reebok, rained shoe money on the basketball world and in so doing acquired so much clout that he is set to be portrayed by James Gandolfini — the guy who played Tony Soprano — in an HBO movie. Vaccaro walked away from Reebok in 2007 with two years left on his contract and now wanders the country as basketball’s angry prophet, barnstorming noisily against the N.C.A.A.’s tax-exempt status and the N.B.A.’s age rule. “One thing is constant,” he says. “One thing. The performers. The players. Without the players, neither of these entities can be multibillion-dollar businesses.”
* * *
This summer, Vaccaro was instrumental in the decision by the prized point-guard recruit Brandon Jennings to spurn Arizona — he had not yet qualified academically — and instead play professionally overseas, sidestepping the N.B.A. entirely and making Jennings a wealthy man. (He was reportedly inspired after he and his mother heard Vaccaro on the radio discussing Europe as a viable option for newly minted high-school grads.) Playing in Italy for Lottomatica Virtus Roma, Jennings will earn $1.2 million this season in salary and endorsements. If all goes well, he will be a top-10 pick in next year’s N.B.A. draft.
To see Jennings draw a paycheck in euros at an age when he’d normally be running suicides for [University of Arizona men's basketball coach] Lute Olson, is to see the players gaining the leverage that probably should have been theirs in the first place.
* * *
For the rest of the story, click here. To read McCann’s study mentioned in the story, check out “NBA Players That Get in Trouble with the Law: Do Age and Education Level Matter?” For a related law review article, check out “Illegal Defense: The Irrational Economics of Banning High School Players from the NBA Draft.”