Commentary

Dodging the NBA's draft-age issue

A suggestion to get the NBPA and the NBA past the draft-eligibility stumbling block

Originally Published: December 11, 2010
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

The 2005 NBA collective bargaining agreement has 43 articles, otherwise known as commandments. Here's one of them:

Article X. Section 1 (b) (i):The player (A) is or will be at least 19 years of age during the calendar year in which the Draft is held, and (B) with respect to a player who is not an international player (defined below), at least one (1) NBA Season has elapsed since the player's graduation from high school (or, if the player did not graduate from high school, since the graduation of the class with which the player would have graduated had he graduated from high school).

Over the past five years, that particular commandment was responsible for players such as Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, John Wall, Greg Oden and others doing one-year bids in college before they headed to the league.

So perhaps not surprisingly as 2010 draws to a close, the edict has become a problem. The National Basketball Players Association wants that section removed from the next collective bargaining agreement. Or, at the least, reconstructed.

According to a report by ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard, the players would like to abolish the age requirement for eligibility to play in the NBA.

[+] EnlargeDavid Stern & Billy Hunter
AP Photo/Dennis CookBilly Hunter and David Stern have a long way to go on the next CBA, but maybe this proposal will help.

"We want to go back to the way it was," one member of the NBPA told Broussard. "The players have always been philosophically opposed to it."

Let's hope there's more to the union's position than that. Because dropping the age requirement, which was a big deal to the owners in the construction of the 2005 agreement, isn't going to be easy. The NBPA needs to come with something more than, "We want it to go back to the way it was." It needs to come with a solution, something different and ingenious.

The problem with having problems with a problem (especially in the middle of a problematic and contentious multibillion-dollar negotiation) is that the problem doesn't disappear or get solved without a solution. Apparently, someone on the owners' side had a problem with "the way it was" five years ago, and I doubt if that has changed.

So what's fair? What is the solution? What can the union do to make a change, get what it wants and still keep the owners reasonably satisfied that they aren't returning to "the way it was" back in the day?

They need a policy, an amendment, a "Bill Maher" that gets rid of the age requirement but still allows the owners and the league to avoid the drama of a bunch of post-prom high school kids running around making millions of dollars without any knowledge of what to do with it or how to handle the responsibilities of an NBA career.

They need a New Rule. I have one. Here's how the solution to the NBAPA age restriction problem should read:

2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement. Player Eligibility and NBA Draft.

Article X. Section 1 (b) (i): A player (A) HAS TO be at least 18 YEARS OF AGE DURING THE CALENDER YEAR IN WHICH THE DRAFT IS HELD, (B) with respect to a player who is not an international player (defined below), OR at least one (1) NBA Season has elapsed since the player's graduation from high school (or, if the player did not graduate from high school, since the graduation of the class with which the player would have graduated had he graduated from high school), that player is eligible to enter that year's draft. HOWEVER,

Section 1(b) (ii) there will be an additional tax levied against any team that drafts any player under the age of 19 and who is not at least one (1) NBA Season removed from graduating high school.

There it is. It's fairer to all parties than the original age restriction was, because it puts an onus on the owners who make the decision to draft certain players and does not victimize or fault the player for simply turning a certain age.

The philosophy behind it is just, as there is a luxury tax penalty already applied to teams that go over the salary cap annually. The modification in this section should impose a similar (if not the same) tax penalty -- let's, for the sake of this column, refer to it as "accountability" -- for any team that decides to draft a player who is under a certain age.

That age being 19.

So if there is another LeBron James or Dwight Howard out there, or the next Wall or Rose convinces some GM that he's worth the risk to get first dibs right out of high school, then let that general manager pitch the payoff to the owner against the cost of the tax. That way, the GM puts his job security (and the coaching staff's job security) on the line if the gamble doesn't pay off.

It would let the people doling out the checks be the ones who decide.

All they'd have to do is pay a little extra.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wall
AP Photo/Jason DeCrowJohn Wall is succeeding in the league at 19. Would the Wizards have been willing to pay the price to get him at 18?

No kid coming out of high school to play in the NBA ever forced any owner or GM to draft him. The decision on all counts prior to 2005 to draft players under the age of 19 was made solely by the front office and management staff of the teams that are a part of the league. So why should the "kids" -- the future labor force -- be held responsible for someone else's actions? Someone else's questionable decisions?

This puts all of the responsibility where it should be: on the owners. If they're the ones who had the problem with prodigies 19 and under coming into their league five years ago, it's only fair that they be the ones now to decide who is good enough at 18 and who isn't. Force them to make the decision instead of letting them hide behind a rule that has protected them from themselves for the past six years.

This is a best-of-three-worlds proposal. It won't keep any player from entering the draft after high school if he feels he's ready; it will make owners and GMs think long and deep about the true worth of a player and how necessary it is to get that player on the roster; and it will answer the ethical and legal questions about an age requirement in a free-market society.

One of the arguments against an age requirement has always been that if a person is old enough to join the military and fight in a war, that person should be old enough to play in the NBA. Under this proposal, the only consideration is whether he is worth the investment to play in the league.

It might not be simple or easy to sell, but it's logical; and the NBA needs logic right now. For the players association to have any leverage moving forward in the negotiations, it has to come with something better than the "how it was back in the day" approach. It needs to come with solutions that work for everyone. If this is an issue over which the players sincerely have a philosophical difference with the owners -- if they really want that commandment gone from the next CBA -- then they must be the ones to draw up a blueprint for how the system should work.

In the case of the league's age requirement, maybe the above suggestion is one for them to grow on.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.

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