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Wednesday, December 8, 2010
How much do NBA players hate the age limit?

By Henry Abbott

ESPN's Chris Broussard reports that NBA players want to end the NBA's age limit:
"We want to go back to the way it was," a source from the NBA Players Association said. "The players have always been philosophically opposed to it. The vast majority of players feel a player should have the right to make a living. If he has the talent and wants to make money to help his family, he should have that right. It's just a matter of principle."

NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter sent an audio podcast detailing the union's proposal to every player last week. The proposal, which includes the end of the age restriction, have been obtained by ESPN.com and confirmed by a union source.

That's in keeping with what the Players Association spokesman Dan Wasserman told TrueHoop a couple of weeks ago:
"The vast majority of players, 90-percent plus, consistently and overwhelming oppose the age limit. The veterans are smart enough to recognize that it's a game about competition, and if somebody can do your jobs cheaper, they're always going to want to replace you whether they're 18 or 25. There's a constant attempt to replace expensive players. But if the tactic was to protect the jobs by eliminating the young competition, we'd have an age limit of 21. But players hate that age limit, and want the best players in the NBA."

Wasserman was reacting to claim by ESPN salary cap expert Larry Coon, who had questioned players' real commitment to ending age restriction. Coon had pointed out that many NBA players have economic incentives to keep it the ban of young players in place. He explains:
Saying the players oppose higher age limits is pretty meaningless. Of course they do -- in principle they oppose adding any additional restrictions on NBA players. But put their opposition in the context of the labor negotiations. How much do they care about this issue? Do they care enough to stand firm on this principle, if it’s the only thing that stands in the way of striking a deal with the owners? What if in exchange for higher age limits, the players can gain something from which the active members can benefit, like higher minimum salaries or a more powerful mid-level exception? Do you think they’ll stand firm on principle then?

I’ve been told by more than one voting member of the players association that I was exactly right. Maybe my admittedly small sample fell entirely within the group outside the “90-percent plus” Dan claims overwhelmingly oppose the age limit -- but I don’t think so.

Dan also misses the point when he talked about teams always wanting to replace expensive players, whether the replacements are 18 or 25. Again, this is a true statement -- but missing both the point and the nuance. It’s not the expensive players who are worried here. These players are usually under guaranteed contract, and they aren’t the guys at the end of rosters whose jobs are in danger. The ones who should be worried are the ones who occupy the 10th to 15th spots on rosters.

If a stud 18-year-old gets drafted in the lottery, then the rest of the draft pool gets pushed down a notch. The pool itself is now bigger, so now there’s one additional player out there who could potentially win one of the roster spots now occupied by a voting member of the union. Forget “expensive” player -- that’s not the point. These are likely all minimum salary guys, or close to it.

If you enlarge the talent pool by letting in younger players, you increase the number of players who are capable of winning a roster spot -- thereby putting a veteran out of a job. Adding age limits keeps these players out of the talent pool, which reduces the number of available players capable of winning a roster spot.

The underlying issue is: Is the players association fighting to eliminate the age limit on principle, or because they know they'll be giving up a hell of a lot to the owners as negotiations unfold, and this is an opportunity to concede something that is not too painful to current voting members (who do not stand to benefit from it)?

The real test of that will be not the rhetoric today, but the final approved terms of the next collective bargaining agreement.