Commentary

End the NBA draft age limit

Ignore the NBA brass' rhetoric; 18-year-olds should be allowed to choose

Updated: April 12, 2012, 11:21 PM ET
By Etan Thomas | Special to ESPN.com

In recent weeks, David Stern and Mark Cuban have spoken about raising the age for NBA draft picks, but that does not mean it has to be so.

The logic for requiring longer stays in college is, in many cases, compelling, but there are equally persuasive arguments from the perspective of prospective pros and NBA players, even those who stayed in college like me.

[+] EnlargeMark Cuban
AP Photo/Danny MoloshokMark Cuban is never far from the action, whether it's a Mavericks game or a public discussion of the NBA.

Powerful spokesmen from the league are lining up because the rule has been carried over from the previous collective bargaining agreement and must be renegotiated going forward. Currently, a player cannot be drafted until he is 19 years old and one year has passed since his high school class graduated.

Commissioner Stern said on April 3 that he'd like to add one year, and Mark Cuban of the Mavericks wants to take it a step further, requiring players to wait three years.

This press for more mature rookies is undoubtedly based on the self-interest of the NBA as a business, but it's also seductive to the public at large because college basketball would benefit greatly. And there's a claim that it will in some way protect young athletes.

"I just think there's a lot more kids that get ruined coming out early or going to school trying to be developed to come out early than actually make it," Cuban said. "For every Kobe [Bryant] or [Kevin] Garnett or Carmelo [Anthony] or LeBron [James], there's 100 Lenny Cookes." (New York high school star Cooke declared but wasn't drafted in 2002 and never played a minute in the NBA.)

I have always been against the NBA's age limit even though these arguments make sense to my mother. She and I have debated this issue many times. As a teacher, she feels strongly that there should be an age limit, and she views the fact that so many young people are not taking advantage of an education as catastrophic and sad. Our people had to fight so long for the right to be educated, my mother argues, but now many young people are not valuing that struggle and are essentially throwing away their education to chase a dream.

"It's not even so much about lottery busts; it's about kids' lives that we're ruining," Cuban said, echoing points my mother made long before he took over the reins of the Mavericks. "Even if you're a first-round pick and you have three years of guaranteed money -- or two years now of guaranteed money -- then what? Because if you're a bust and it turns out you just can't play in the NBA, your 'Rocks for Jocks' one year of schooling isn't going to get you real far."

I can't really disagree with either of those points, and I followed the path preferred by my mother. I stayed in school for four years. I had a wonderful experience at Syracuse University. I earned my degree in business management, met my wife and grew as a person, and it prepared me for life. But that's my case.

[+] EnlargeGarnett/Pierce
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaKevin Garnett, left, didn't go to college. Paul Pierce did. Neither won an NBA title until they played together.

Despite that experience, I always come back to this in my opposition to the rule: Is it fair to force someone who wants to take a different path to remain in college or even to attend college in the first place?

Along with thousands of other Syracuse fans, I was not at all surprised to learn that Fab Melo and Dion Waiters won't be returning for another chance at the NCAA title. Do I wish they would've come back? As a fan, yes. Anthony Davis, who is projected to go No. 1, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond -- all lottery locks -- have to go. From a business standpoint, even the casual fan should understand their departures. It is less clear whether anyone projected to go at the end of the first round or in the second round really should be considering leaving.

That being said, do I think players have every right to leave? Absolutely. Melo and Waiters are tremendous talents already. Could they improve their draft status, season their skills and ultimately assure themselves longer, more lucrative professional careers? Maybe. That's a decision they had to make for themselves, weighing the value of education on and off the court versus the risk of injury or a bad season.

"Being able to play professional basketball has been my dream since I first started playing this game and now I have the opportunity to accomplish that dream," Melo said when he announced the decision.

Do I, or anyone in the NCAA or NBA power structures, have the right to take that dream from him because I feel it would be more advantageous for him to stay in school another year? Do any of us have the right to say Nerlens Noel has to spend next year at Kentucky and Shabazz Muhammad has to stop at UCLA before the NBA?

One of the purposes of going to school is to find a good job, and if someone can get a good job before finishing school, why should anyone stop them? Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, and it turned out OK for him.

But let's be honest here -- who really benefits from a player enrolled for a semester or two or three or four? From my perspective, the colleges are cashing in. They get a year or two of free labor. They exploit these "student-athletes" by making millions of dollars off ticket sales and TV deals while the players get what, tuition, room and board? They're like the employees at a restaurant who get to eat there for free. Compare the annual value of the free education of all the players on a given team to their coach's salary.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Davis
AP Photo/Chris SteppigKentucky fans could not have asked for more from Anthony Davis in his one season.

If schools are are going to treat basketball like a business, they should treat it like a business from top to bottom and college athletes should be paid. Or, as I've argued all along, they should be allowed to go to the NBA, where they can be paid.

Of course, those who get drafted this year will enter a league that locked out players to change the rules so the NBA decision-makers could "protect them from themselves." In the real world, people have the freedom to make their own choices and they deal with the rewards or the consequences.

Here is what I have great difficulty with when hearing the Mark Cubans of the world (with all due respect to Mr. Cuban, who runs one of the best franchises in the NBA): In this country, when you turn 18, you are considered an adult. You can buy a shotgun, operate a helicopter, vote for the president, fight in a war.

We're expected to believe that billionaires who can't stop themselves from spending money are concerned with these young men's overall well-being and want to protect them from the horrors and the pitfalls ahead? We're expected to believe that young men are mature enough to put their life on the line in a war but playing basketball is too much responsibility?

The connection has rarely been made, but if an individual (potential NBA athlete) is being deprived of his potential employment, he is in fact the victim of age discrimination. Given that James, Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Bryant, Dwight Howard, Al Jefferson, Jermaine O'Neal and Moses Malone, to name a few, all entered the draft straight out of high school, it would be difficult for the NBA to justify its age requirement as a bona fide occupational qualification.

I understand why fans are eating up what they hear from Stern and Cuban. I've heard it from my mother. And I still believe it is wrong. Whether the player becomes the next Kobe or LeBron or is a disappointment is beside the point. If a player decides he wants to try the NBA, to follow a dream, then arbitrary age limits, our love of college athletics or pseudo-concerns about his welfare should not determine whether he makes it. That should be up to his talent.

Etan Thomas played 11 seasons in the NBA, and is a poet, author and motivational speaker. His website is etanthomas.com. Follow him on Twitter @etanthomas36.

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