Until a few nights ago I hadn’t given much thought to the current eligibility rules in place for NBA Draft hopefuls. Quite frankly, it didn’t affect me all that much. So what has me so outraged that I would be writing this article on a picturesque NYC night? There is a very clear distinction between looking out for your business’ best interest and exploiting 17 and 18 year-old individuals. Allow me to show you how the NBA owners continue to play by their own rules, even when it means crossing that line.

In 2005 the NBA and player’s union agreed to institute the so-called “one and done” rule as part of the league’s CBA (collective bargaining agreement). The rule change appeared to be the league’s response to the increasing number of players who were making the jump straight from high school to the NBA.

The 2005 CBA represented the culmination of months of discussions between the player’s union, the commissioner’s office (representing the owners at-large) and the legal rosters employed by both. Entering the process, the league’s owners (represented by then Commissioner David Stern) called for an age limit of 20. David Stern even went so far as to insinuate that due of the influx of teenagers to the NBA at the time; young urban Americans viewed the NBA as a sure path to financial security. The Commissioner would have led you to believe that the NBA sought the rule change to not only help in the scouting process but for the moral well-being of inner-city youth. Ultimately the player’s union agreed to the current age limit of 19, in exchange the league agreed to player-friendly amendments to the salary-cap structure. The players union knew what we now know, that the league owners wanted to tweak the eligibility requirements for very specific reasons.

Let’s take a look at some of the results of the current draft eligibility rules for the NBA Draft:

  1. Provides NBA teams with the benefit of additional information about prospective players, thereby reducing the risk of a pick being a “bust”. As in any industry, NBA owners do not like over-paying for under-performing employees. In a salary-cap structured league, 1st-round picks can produce significant value per cap dollar relative to the wages of comparable veterans.
    • Take for instance, 2nd-year pro and former #1 overall pick, Andrew Wiggins’ salary-cap figure was $5.76 million or 8.23% of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ total salary-cap space. Meanwhile the Cleveland Cavaliers are allocating $19.7 million or 28.13% of their total salary-cap to Kevin Love. Unless you have been living under a rock you can tell which team is getting the better of this deal. I brought up this example not to emphasize the value of premium picks but rather to illustrate just how costly missing on a pick can be.
  2. Greatly increases the likelihood of an individual playing at least one year of college basketball. Though not required, individuals successfully choosing to play overseas professionally or sitting out for the year are fewer in number.
  3. By effectively increasing the age at which players enter the league, the age at which the same players are eligible for free-agency increases. All else equal, older players are less likely to receive larger and/or multi-year guaranteed deals. The effect of which, all other variables held constant, is a decrease in the potential earnings over the life of a career.

The fact of the matter is that real people have been and will continue to be affected by the eligibility rule. The system in place protects the interests of all but those who need it most. If the NBA truly sought to better the interests of its future players, would it not be more effective to focus its efforts on a transparent process with impartial evaluation. Instead of telling these individuals that waiting a year before entering the NBA is in their best interest, why not let them work out for teams and receive true unbiased feedback without the fear of violating their “right” to playing in college. Regardless of the choice ultimately made by the individual, restricting the ability to gather the necessary information to make an informed decision is outrageous and downright laughable.

There is a sort of cruel reality to accepting and understanding that professional sports are as much a business as Home Depot and Duane Reade. I truly want to believe that the NBA crafted the rule change, all the while thinking it would be best for the young men affected. The fact of the matter though is that the NBA chose to implement the “one and done” rule in order to stack the deck in their favor and maximize profits. In a league where, more so than any other, the player is the biggest asset of the business; how exactly is it that the NBA owners continue to set the rules?

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