DBSF, an adamant opponent to the NBA's minimum age rule, crafted the following essay to coincide with Michael Jordan taking ownership of the Charlotte Bobcats last month. The popular media wisely disregarded the essay. It is being reprinted in response to Kareem Abdul-Jabar's myopic (or, so DBSF believes) statement today that the NBA should increase the minimum age to 21.
For every gravity-defying dunk and, for every Byron Russell-bewildering crossover he executed as a player, “His Airness,” Michael Jordan, exhibited equal skill in avoiding political controversy. Much to the dismay of the socially conscious sport’s fan, Jordan wrapped himself in the cape of political indifference demanded by his Nike,
Gatorade and, Hanes corporate partners. But, this could change now that he is the majority owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats. As the only black majority owner of an NBA team, he is in a unique position to raise the issue of the NBA’s most inequitable draft policy: the age limit rule.
In 2006, the NBA increased the age at which players could be drafted from 18 to 19. Fans and analysts alike applauded the decision, agreeing that it was better for the game if players had at least one year of college experience or, as in the case of the Milwaukee Bucks’ Brandon Jennings a year of professional European play. The new age limit granted teams greater certainty that their LeBron James wasn’t a Kwame Brown and, saved them a year of salary for undeveloped, inexperienced players, who recorded most of their playing time in practice.
In theory, the age increase resolves a principal-agent problem. Unlike other highly competitive fields, such as medicine and law that rely on standardized test scores and class ranking to determine admittance, there is no equivalent measure of basketball acumen. Thus, the principal (NBA teams) possesses incomplete information about the agent (high school players). Further, the agent might hold interests, like getting drafted regardless of his ability to help a team win, contrary to those of the principal, who seek ultimately to win championships. In an era of a profligate Wall Street and irresponsible lending practices, surely any policy that engenders greater certainty in markets, whether they be financial or athletic, is preferable.
Although there exists no standardized test or class ranking system in basketball, teams can thoroughly vet players through hours of high school and Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) game tapes, weeks of pick-up games with NBA players, individual interviews, team tryouts, and the NBA pre-draft Combine. These tests not only give teams a picture of a player’s athleticism, but also his “coachability”, maturity, leadership skills, and ability to understand NBA offensive and defensive systems.
More importantly, proponents of the age limit refuse to acknowledge that the policy penalizes poorer, younger black men to the benefit of an astronomically wealthier and whiter group of team owners. While black players comprise approximately 75% of the NBA, 19 of the last 20 first round American high school draft picks were black. Considering the average NBA career lasts only five years, these players could be losing a fifth of their career earnings in a high-income, and highly specialized profession.
Finally, it goes without saying that life outside the NBA appears much dimmer. Players can go to college where their play can earn their school millions in exchange for tuition, room and, board. If they need income to support family then they can tryout for one of the seventeen NBA Developmental League teams, which offer salaries between $13,000 and $40,000, but players can be sent to unfamiliar cities, like Erie, PA and Sioux Falls, SD with no guarantee of ever making an NBA roster. Thus, with limited options in the U.S., they play abroad in places, like China and Turkey, where they often experience stress over prolonged separation from family and friends.
Working to reverse the age limit rule presents Michael Jordan with an opportunity to transition from being the greatest player to a great owner, who opposes inherently discriminatory practices. But, should he ignore the politically conscious path of socially and athletically elite athletes, like Muhammad Ali, in the end the legacy of “His Airness” will be a bit drafty.