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Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Noel's knee as an age-limit referendum

By Eamonn Brennan

Editor's Note: Kentucky announced Wednesday afternoon that freshman center Nerlens Noel has a torn ACL and will miss the remainder of the season.

On Tuesday night, that thing you never want to see happen happened: A college basketball player suffered a potentially season-ending injury.

The extent of the injury to Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel's knee was unknown early Wednesday morning, but everyone who watched -- from Florida fans to TV viewers to center Patric Young, who looked on with immediate concern -- saw Noel in pursuit of a fast-break block, saw him take off in midair, saw him come close to the basket standard, saw his knee buckle awkwardly beneath, and saw him clutch at it while he took two seconds to process how much pain he was in. Then he started screaming.

It was impossible to see all of this and not be a little bit shaken up. I had to turn away from the TV. The first thought wasn't about Kentucky's season or its bubble chances. The first thought was about how badly something has to hurt for a guy made of whatever Noel is made of to scream like that.

Nerlens Noel
Nerlens Noel injured his left knee during the second half of Kentucky's 69-52 loss to No. 7 Florida.
You don't need a certified college basketball expert to tell you the injury looked bad, and that if it turns out to season ending, Kentucky's tournament chances may suffer a similar fate. As Noel excelled defensively -- no player in the country has been as good at blocking shots and creating steals as the 6-foot-11 center -- the Wildcats were finally putting things together. Their early struggles had likely left them resigned to, at best, a No. 8 seed, but one no one would want to see come March. If Noel is lost for the rest of the season, the NCAA tournament selection committee will be forced to evaluate the Wildcats more closely over the period without him. None of this bodes well for selection.

The other angle is Noel's personal one, and that might be the one I find most interesting. Yahoo Sports' Pat Forde, as he is wont to do, came right out with it:
Really, the outcome of Kentucky's season is secondary, although a significant injury would increase the chances of the 17-7 Wildcats missing the NCAA tournament. The greater issue is Noel's future, and the way it is put at risk by a system that forced him to play college ball for a year instead of going straight into the NBA draft.

Noel may have gotten hurt in 2013 no matter where he was playing, but at least he would be under contract and well-compensated by whatever NBA team would have drafted him in the first round last June.

Instead, he wound up playing for scholarship money at Kentucky. And while that is nothing to sneeze at, Noel's presence on campus represents restraint of trade and a bastardization of what college is supposed to be.

He wants to be a pro basketball player. Let him be a pro basketball player without the charade of college delaying it.

I agree. I'm guessing you do too. I don't know anyone who doesn't think the age limit is either ethically dubious at best, or outright wrong at worst. And it's entirely fair to raise this issue now, because it always sounds like a weak straw-man argument -- well, um, what if the No. 1 pick gets hurt?! -- until it actually happens. And now it very possibly has.

Problem: It doesn't matter that we agree.

As long as David Stern, commissioner-in-training Adam Silver and the NBA ownership they work for disagree, their retort is simple. They say: It's awful that someone got injured playing college basketball. Perhaps the NCAA should find a way to better compensate its players? Of course, the burgeoning European leagues are always an option. It's really none of our business. You have to be 19 to join our league. That's the rule our owners and players have agreed to.

I like to think of myself as an amateur David Stern quip archivist, and that seems similar to something he might say when asked about this situation. I'm not a lawyer, but what exactly is the counterargument? Restraint of trade? From even a quick Internet search, if the one-and-done rule was agreed to during a good-faith negotiation between a union and management, it is almost certainly exempt from typically applicable antitrust law. The pending rights and antitrust legal cases against the NCAA are one thing, but the NBA? It has an antitrust exemption. Is that lawsuit even plausible?

This is frustrating, but I'm not sure how to change it. Perhaps the NBA decides this risk should be a factor in its next collective bargaining agreement. (Probably not.) Perhaps the NBA would like to give players another year or two before they're allowed the join the league; perhaps the players' union could push back and fight for a baseball-style draft. (Not with an NBPA in shambles.) This has always been the part of the one-and-done discussion people disproportionately gloss over: This stays the way it is until the NBA says otherwise.

Maybe Noel, if his knee injury is that severe, and if it costs him too much of the compensation his talents deserve, becomes a loud example of exactly why this legally sound but ethically sketchy thing continues to stand unchallenged. Maybe it just starts a discussion.

But right now, the best I can do is that's not fair. I wish it were a more convincing argument.