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Wednesday, August 6, 2014
NCAA a bigger threat to NBA than FIBA

By Ethan Sherwood Strauss

It’s truly insane that the NBA allows its best talents to risk their careers playing in a different league for different coaches, but sometimes tradition codifies insanity. Perhaps the latest gruesome injury will cause the league to reconsider.

How can a sport trafficking in billions allow its brightest stars to fall into a nebulous area where top medical attention isn't assured? How can such a powerful corporation toss the reins to a bunch of slapdash programs that have little incentive to help the NBA and every incentive to win right now, even if the player suffers long term? In the parlance of Mark Cuban, it’s the epitome of stupidity that the NBA allows itself to be used so that other corporations make hundreds of millions, if not billions.

I'm talking about NCAA basketball, of course. Right now, quite a few owners and executives are fixated on FIBA, with some seeing Paul George's sickening injury in a Team USA scrimmage as a "game-changer," or at least a validation for long-held concerns. There's a revulsion at how an event NBA teams have no control over can alter the trajectory of an entire franchise. The aforementioned Cuban has emphatically tweeted in opposition to a system in which players don't get paid, the NBA doesn’t get paid and all the money flows to an opaque sports bureaucracy.

When considering FIBA/Olympic events ask who gets paid. Players=No. NBA=No FIBA/IOC=YES. Ask the people making money of us what they think

— Mark Cuban (@mcuban) August 4, 2014

Thing is, that arrangement perfectly describes NCAA basketball -- just without the hand-wringing from NBA executives on how something must be done. How does this one major injury in the history of American international play prove that it’s a big, scary risk while the many college ball injuries aren't used as an indictment against that particular system?

NBA teams aren't technically linked financially to college players like the Indiana Pacers are to George, but injuries at the NCAA level can be just as devastating to pro franchises. Say you have a top pick in a year when the top prospect (say, Nerlens Noel) shreds his knee. There are few (and sometimes no) franchise guys in a draft, and now you're either incurring the risk of selecting an injured talent or casting your lot with a more dubious talent (say, most of the players drafted before Noel). The Pacers will probably be without George's services for a season. Missing on a high draft pick might haunt a team for a decade.

Injuries in college aren't just a threat to specific NBA teams and owners, either. Apart from the obviously negative impact on the afflicted player, they're an economic threat to players in general. The players' association loses incredible amounts of basketball related income (BRI) if the next LeBron James suffers something career derailing for whichever one-and-done mill.

And yet, there's little concern over how the NBA might be hurt by loaning out its talent to a game with different rules, part-time refs and medical oversight that runs the gamut. Even though the NBA's most famous stars (James, Kobe Bryant) reached that echelon without any help from college basketball, there's a pervading notion that the college game is a necessary component of the pro game, that this is a mutually beneficial relationship. Former commissioner David Stern even went so far as to help the college game with an age limit that keeps generational talents battling the likes of Alcorn State. Current commissioner Adam Silver isn't satisfied with that arrangement and lists raising said age limit as his "top priority."

The NBA just loves supporting college basketball, and it's not as if it faces opposition from owners and executives in the way it does for supporting these monthlong FIBA jaunts. Yes, a month, unlike the college system that's a season unto itself, one that actually runs parallel to the NBA's season.

It's often said that NCAA hoops is the NBA's "free farm system," but what kind of free farm system competes financially with the sport it feeds into? The cost of "free" is a postseason that's more popular than yours and runs smack-dab in the middle of your season. College football shows deference to the NFL product by being a Saturday event, leaving Sunday to the pros. College basketball runs on a "Whenever we please, NBA be damned," schedule. In fact, the NBA avoids holding its games during college basketball's championship tournament.

When you step back from warm associations with March Madness and curmudgeonly coaches in sweater vests, it seems as if the NBA just gives prized talent away to an ungrateful competitor. It's a competitor that hasn't proved it can develop talent for the NBA, either. The more time a player spends in college, the less likely he is to prosper as a pro.

Given the enumerated headaches the NBA gets in return for helping college basketball, it's a wonder there's pushback within the league against players helping out FIBA in their free time. Sure, the NBA can't wholly monetize international competition. It can't monetize the college game, either. Sure, there's a risk of NBA stars getting hurt playing in FIBA competition. There's a risk major draft picks get hurt playing domestically for colleges. At least the rare FIBA tournament helps spread awareness around the world about the NBA’s product. College basketball serves primarily as an advertisement for watching more regularly programmed college basketball.

So why is the NBA establishment content with college and uneasy with FIBA? It might have something to do with just how many people in the NBA establishment are college basketball fans. The NCAA fan demo skews older and wealthier than NBA fandom, matching up well with the demographics of those who actually run the NBA. There are many positive, nostalgic associations with the college game among pro basketball's power brokers. The FIBA World Cup just doesn't have that kind of emotional pull. College ball is familiar, playfully tribal. FIBA is quite literally foreign. Perhaps that difference is why one kind of basketball inspires fondness and the other evokes fear.