Yesterday was the NBA draft. In the first round, eight high school seniors were taken, and only five college seniors. (The rest were overseas players and college underclassmen.) The very first pick was a high school senior, chosen over a very accomplished college player.
You have to be 16 to drive. You have to be 21 at drink alcohol (at least where I live). Should there be a minimum age for playing professional basketball? NBA commissioner David Stern favors a minimum age of 20 for NBA players. The NFL’s rule, banning players less than three years out of high school, withstood a court challenge from Maurice Clarett, who wanted to go pro after two years of college.
Nobody can argue, after seeing Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and LeBron James, that college is a prerequisite for NBA stardom. Sure, some high-school draftees wash out, but they may well have failed just as badly had they spent four years playing college ball.
Stern, and other proponents of the minimum age rule, argue that going to college is good for these kids. That’s probably true, if they become real students. But it’s hard to see the point in making them pretend to be students, which is what many of them would do were it not for the straight-to-the-pros path. It’s especially hard to see the point of making them mark time as pseudo-students until they pass some arbitrary age threshold, at which point they can drop their pseudo-education like a red-hot brick and jump to the pros.
Another, considerably more cynical, argument for an age limit is that forcing kids to play college sports is a clever way to subsidize university education. If college basketball is just minor-league pro ball with unpaid players, then it can serve as a profit center for universities, generating revenue to support other students who are actually being educated.
But all of this ignores the biggest losers in the trend towards professionalization of college sports: the true student-athletes. These are the players who don’t spend all day in the weight room, who study things other than game films. It’s very hard for them to compete against full-time athletes, and so they face intense pressure to slack on their studies.
It seems to me that professional football and basketball could learn a thing or two from baseball. The normal path in baseball has been for players to turn pro immediately after high school, with only a few players