May 26, 2024

Minimum Age for Pro Basketball?

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


  1. Chris Walsh says

    The examples of age minima for driving and for drinking are not particularly relevant, it seems to me. “Professional athlete” is a job, plain and simple. The only age minimum applied should be that applied to working per se. To me, arguments against persons “going pro” early are often paternalistic and patronizing. I have read of people who have become college professors, MDs, or degreed scientific researchers at rather young ages because they were “gifted” intellectually and pursued these goals successfully. Generally, such Wunderkinder are exalted, not pitied. Why should it not be the same for those whose gifts involve athletic prowess? As for those who try, but fail, why does the fact that they fail become an argument for making their attempt to succeed illegal? It is almost as if the legislature is adopting Homer Simpson’s advice to Bart — “Trying is the first step on the road to failure”, so don’t do it.

  2. Division I college sports programs may be big money losers in an accounting sense, but I believe there are a large number of contributors who would stop or cut back on the amounts they give — they are often alumni — if there the sports programs were cut back. In this sense, in the way it helps endowments and other broader measures, I cannot believe that the programs are not well worth their cost financially. [Disclaimer: I haven’t read or even looked at Murray Sperber’s book.]

  3. The argument that colleges and univesities actually make any money off of NCAA sports is itself flawed according to Murray Sperber’s excellent book Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education. Sperber says that while college administrators often claim that big time college sports are helping to pay the bills, in reality the vast majority of Division I sports programs are in fact giant money losers.

    I agree with you about the age limiting; I just thought I would point out that the very idea that college sports are a good deal for university finances may be a red herring.

  4. Quick update. If I am not mistaken, baseball requires student athletes who decide to go to college to play ball there for 3 years before being eligible for the MLB draft.

  5. I’ll agree with you about basketball. On the subject of football, however, I’m going to go the direction of the NFL (of which I have partial affiliation) and discuss that. The argument of the NFL is that the students would be completely unable to cop with the would of the NFL (the practices, games, speed of the game, etc.). Furthermore, there are not many looking to challenge the ruling to leave right after high school. I understand your point of using college as a jumping off point, but the fact is that most football players in college aren’t drafted, and those leaving early are the ones making the business decision that they can possibly go higher in the draft because they have had an exceptional college season. Having been a small part of the draft process, there are some kids who are extremely talented who go to college to play football because they know they have to play somewhere for at least three years. But your fact that baseball chooses mostly seniors in the draft is questionable. If you look at the last two highest picks coming out of Princeton, they were both selected after their junior year, effectively barring them from playing a senior year. Furthremore, of the top 30 players drafted, 13 were in high school, and one was from a junior college (the draft site gives no clue as to whether the player is a junior or senior as I read it). As for the lower rounds, this number decreases, but that’s to be expected. Why waste a draft pick on some mediocre high school player when you can get a college player with more experience? To look at baseball as the example for drafting or business is flawed. Finally, the only reason baseball can accomplish drafting high schoolers is because of a minor league system that nearly every player goes through. Football does not have this, basketball does not have this, hockey did but who knows if hockey will stick? My point is that the majority of football players in college are not selected in the draft, have no intention of playing pro football, but merely love the game and enjoy playing it. I understand the point you make, but I feel that to consider baseball the standard merely because there is no decree that a player must be x-number of years removed from high school is flawed. Furthermore, you make the point yourself (not explicitly of course) that baseball is beginning to use college as another pre-draft minor league. How do you justify this difference between expecting kids to go to college before you draft them, and forcing them? And how does it make it any different from football, where the owners have decided in the CBA that they want students to go to college (realizign that the average pro career is somewhere in the 3 years range). While baseball may increase the number of baseball players going to college, this does not mean that these players will work harder in their studies. In fact, it may create these “full-time” athletes that you speak of.

  6. I think that the baseball system is better than that of football and basketball, but there are plenty of players in college baseball who are primarily interested in baseball, and it’s been that way for a long time. Major league baseball is chock full of former collegians, and yet only 42 major leaguers are college grads.