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Monday, November 28, 2011
Two-year age limit could be on the way

By Eamonn Brennan

On Sunday, at the local gigantic organic grocery store deli counter, my roommate complimented a meat salesman wearing a Chicago Bulls hat.

"Thanks," the deli salesman said. "I just wish they weren't canceling the season."

My roommate paused and smiled, flashing the look of someone who had just realized he and he alone had the power to immediately make this man's day approximately 200 percent better. "You didn't hear?" my roommate said. "The lockout's over!" If only every deli counter interaction could end so well.

It was easy to miss the big NBA news this weekend, not only because it came so late on Friday night, but because with the Thanksgiving holiday, the NFL in action and a large smattering of college hoops around the country, the NBA lockout had briefly become an afterthought. No more. Tentatively, the league appears set for a return Christmas Day. The basketball-related income mark, or BRI, is set and agreed upon. The league will return as soon as the various parties come to an agreement on a variety of so-called B-List issues.

As a fan of all kinds of basketball, this pleases me greatly. As a writer who covers college hoops, it bears a much closer look. Somewhere, lost in all the talk about BRI and various horserace-style who-won-the-day maneuverings, these so-called B-list issues have faded to the background. But lest we forget, one of these issues -- the NBA age limit -- could have the biggest impact on the college hoops landscape of any systemic change since the one-and-done rule was instituted in 2006.

As of Monday, the age limit remains up for debate. The NBA is in favor of extending the limit to two years, giving the league's GMs a better look at incoming players in hopes of avoiding the high-profile draft mistakes that led to the one-and-done rule in the first place. The players oppose this rule in theory. They believe it is unfair, and they're probably right, because why is it an 18-year-old's fault that an NBA GM falls in love with that player's "length?"  But it's been a while since the players have actually had to deal with it, and they notably agreed to a one-year age limit when this expired collective bargaining agreement was hatched in 2006. Could the same thing happen again?

Sports Illustrated's Michael McCann discussed the age limit in the current negotiation context this weekend, and he believes the players are set to compromise on this issue yet again:
The union will probably compromise this time around as well since, A) raising the limit would only directly impact those players not yet in the union and thus those who have no voice and; B) a higher limit would mean that more veterans keep their jobs every year. Still, there are many NBA players who believe firmly in not raising the age restriction and this is not an easy issue to resolve over a weekend.

The calculus reminds me of the scene in "Ides of March" when hotshot political operative Ryan Gosling convinces hotshot presidential candidate George Clooney that supporting a mandatory service requirement for 18-year-old American citizens (in exchange for college tuition) is not only sound policy but great politics. Why? Because the only people who wouldn't like the idea -- those under 18 -- can't vote. Future NBA prospects may have interests at stake in this negotiation, but they have no voice in the process.

It feels like a no-brainer for the current players, who can protect veterans' jobs while conceding something in exchange for a concession from the owners. (For example: drug testing.) That's not to say it's a done deal. Far from it. But if you had to guess which major B-list concession the NBA players would be making in the next week of final negotiations, wouldn't it be this one?

There are arguments to be had -- and believe me, they will be had -- about the ethics of such a rule. Is it a good thing prep players have to spend two years on a college campus? Probably! Is it unfair? Also probably!

But if the age limit is changed, these arguments will soon cede the foreground to the practical reality of the situation, which is undeniably good for college basketball at large. It means more top talents at more teams for a longer period of time. It means this year's promising freshmen are sure to be next year's monster sophomores. It means drastic changes to the way many programs scout and recruit talent on a yearly basis. It means look out 2012-13 Kentucky Wildcats. It will change so much about the sport. At least right now, many of those changes appear to be for the positive.

It's no done deal, but now that the big BRI stuff is out of the way, the NBA lockout's relevant parties can get around to deciding the immediate future of college basketball. Stay tuned.