New NCAA President Wants to Change the Age Limit Rules

18 08 2010

The blogoworld is a wonderful place full of energetic writers who cover every topic imaginable. But sometimes, interesting topics fall through the cracks, even when it’s August and the top story is that Carmelo Anthony will definitely be traded, as reported by someone who said the same of Kobe Bryant three years ago.

Now, where was I? Ah yes, a story that wasn’t covered enough yesterday. As we all know, the NBA instituted an age limit that now teaches 18 and 19-year-olds how to be really mature during one season of college ball. I kid, because in some cases it’s quite useful for players who would have foolishly bolted for the NBA right out of high school. But on the whole, it’s a bizarre rule that mostly serves to create readymade stars for the league, which is better for marketing purposes than difficult-to-figure high schoolers.

Some people think the rule needs work. That group includes incoming NCAA head honcho Mark Emmert, previously president at the University of Washington. Here’s what he had to say (via John Krolik at PBT, the only site where I saw this story):

“I much prefer the baseball model, for example, that allows a young person if they want to go play professional baseball, they can do it right out of high school, but once they start college they’ve got to play for three years or until they’re 21,” Emmert, who is leaving the University of Washington to take the helm of the NCAA, said in the interview. “I like that a good deal.

“But what you have to also recognize is that rule isn’t an NCAA rule,” Emmert said during KJR’s interview. “That’s a rule of the NBA. And it’s not the NBA itself, but the NBA Players Association. So to change that rule will require me and others working with the NBA, working with the players association.”

He added: “We’ll be having those conversations, because I think it would be good for young people and good for basketball.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the baseball draft, the first round is usually a mishmash of high-school blue-chippers and proven college stars. Each then needs several seasons of further schooling in the minor leagues, after which a select few make it to the major leagues. Most players, whether they played in the NCAA or not, are failures and never see an MLB ballpark.

That should make it clear that the specifics of professional baseball and basketball are far different. In baseball, only once-in-a-generation talents like Stephen Strasburg contribute within a year of being drafted, whereas NBA rookies often become their lowly teams’ best players within a few months (see: Evans, Tyreke). Choosing college baseball is a legitimate option because it prepares players for the major leagues while simultaneously allowing them to pursue an education that often becomes necessary when their MLB dreams die. Plus, most minor league contracts don’t pay much, so it’s not as if they’re giving up much in the way of salary.

Money is an issue here, because there are large socioeconomic differences between typical baseball and basketball prospects. The majority of American professional baseball players are suburban whites from reasonably well-off families; the sport’s poorest athletes usually come from the Caribbean and enroll in academies as teenagers. Basketball players, on the other hand, are usually black and from incredibly poor inner-city areas. For the top prospects, a choice between three years of college ball or immediate money in a professional league is an easy choice: they need the help and likely won’t be willing to forgo three seasons of salary for the chance to play in the NCAA.

It’s clear why Emmert would want this system in place. It would populate the NCAA with players who actually want to be there for long periods of time, rather than those who simply stay for a season or two because the NBA’s rules dictate they must. In the long run, though, it’s easy to imagine college ball turning into an amateur league that holds little interest for NBA observers. Remember, college baseball isn’t very popular, in large part because it doesn’t have all the best players in the 18-22 age group. If most top high school prospects forgo college entirely, NCAA basketball runs the risk of becoming an even more inferior product full of “stars” with little chance of succeeding at the next level. Yes, alums will still care and watch games, but the stakes will invariably become lower once it becomes clear that the best players aren’t involved. Emmert’s plan would certainly turn the NCAA into something closer to the amateur league it claims to be, but in doing so he would sacrifice serious television revenue for his organization.

As noted  by Krolik in the PBT article linked above, this plan would also likely means that more players would go overseas to train in lieu of playing in college. The NBA only has so many roster spots for these players, and they will want to make money while also proving that they can handle the rigors of an 82-game professional season.

Krolik speaks of this as if it’s a bad thing, which it is in the sense that America would cease to become the locus of NBA player development. Yet I can’t see it lasting for long, in part because the NBA would surely make changes to ensure that it would continue to be the center of all basketball activity. That means a new system for player development that builds on the NBDL’s status as the NBA’s farm league.

This is all a long way of saying that Emmert’s proposal would almost certainly lead to a real basketball training system in the United States, instead of the half-amateur/half-not hyprocritical mess currently being practiced by the NCAA. College ball would still remain an option for players, but they could also choose to play in a legitimate developmental league run by the organization they all eventually want to be a part of.

College basketball has great tradition, and it’d be sad to see it lose popularity. At the same time, it’d be wonderful to get rid of the considerable hypocrisy that turns “amateur” sports into a den of iniquity. Emmert’s plan would almost certainly deprive his organization of money, but it would also be a necessary step towards ridding American basketball culture of the crooks and middlemen who profit off numerous shady dealings.

So I salute Mark Emmert, even if these are all unintended consequences. Serious reformers are rarely popular, but they’ll always have a shiny place in the history books.