Kobe Bryant will go down as one of the most successful basketball players in the history of the National Basketball League (NBA). He’s third all time on the NBA career scoring list behind all time greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone and has won five NBA championships, which is unprecedented in today’s standards. He is an icon in the sports world and a role model for aspiring athletes, but what makes him stand out the most from some of the other greats is that he entered the NBA after high school graduation. Now that is impossible. Athletes must be removed from high school for a minimum of one year before they can enter the NBA draft. While this may not seem like a huge deal, this restriction has many drawbacks on a player’s overall well-being. Imagine if Kobe Bryant had to wait a year to enter the NBA. He could have suffered a catastrophic injury, he could have been drafted to a different team in a different situation, or he could have missed out on millions of dollars throughout his career. Although these statements are a bunch of “what ifs,” they are a major concern for potential athletes. With that being said, the question is should prospective professional basketball players have the choice to forego college sports to enter the NBA?
College is a place for someone to improve their appeal towards potential employers, seek higher potential earnings, make connections, and aim for a healthier and happier life (Beckstead, 2017). But what if one doesn’t need the extra education to be successful? Some of the most successful people in the world, such as Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Dave Thomas, and Michael Dell dropped out of or didn’t even attend
college; LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and Kobe Bryant are some of the most successful athletes to forego attending college to pursue a professional sports career. Is it fair to prevent someone from being employed in a sector they excel in and are passionate about?
Since 2006, high school basketball players have been required to either play college basketball or play overseas for a minimum of one year. According to Thomas (2012), a former professional basketball player and current ESPN writer, “If schools 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” (para.17). In response to Thomas, college players and many others have been advocating for a salary in college. They claim that free tuition and room and board do not equate to the value of their services to the colleges. Paying college athletes is a good solution to the current age restriction problem, but the alternative, getting rid of the age restriction not only benefits athletes but lessens the negative impact the NCAA might experience if they begin to pay their student athletes. While one can only speculate, if the NCAA ends up paying college athletes then they might as well let them enter the professional leagues because initially the NCAA may see a decrease in revenue due to the amount of money they have to allocate to the athletes.
Secondly, it has been debated whether some NBA procedures including draft eligibility rules violate antitrust laws. Antitrust laws were developed by the government to ensure that fair competition exists in an open market economy. For example, “In a perfectly competitive professional football labor market, there would be many football leagues for a potential football player to choose from, and clubs within individual leagues would have the ability to select any potential player” (Hernandez, 2013, p.19). This statement is also applicable to the NBA. A near perfect competitive market would eliminate any current concerns regarding antitrust laws because one league would be unable to prohibit trade between leagues. Since there would be several other leagues players could join, an attempt by one league to implement rules players dislike wouldn’t be an issue because those players could decide to leave the league and play elsewhere, where conditions are similar. This is a problem that has risen not only in the NFL but also the NBA. In regards to prospective athletes, the current NBA eligibility rules limit competition by preventing players who do not satisfy any of the eligibility requirements:
- All drafted players must be at least 19 years of age during the calendar year of the draft
- Any player who is not an international player, as defined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, must be at least one year removed from the graduation of his high school class
- They have completed 4 years of their college eligibility.
- If they graduated from high school in the U.S. but did not enroll in a U.S. college or university and four years have passed since their high school class graduated.
- They have signed a contract with a professional basketball team outside of the NBA, anywhere in the world, and have played under that contract. They also must be released from their contract before they can leave college to go to the NBA.
This prevents prospective players from competing for a roster position with any NBA team. Hernandez (2013), explains how having these constraints results in a limited pool of players and a decreased level of competition for each available roster spot on an NFL team (p.20-21). This is especially true if the players rejected would be able to play at a high level in the NBA. Therefore, the NBA’s eligibility rules limit competition to obtain a spot on the team.
The counterargument has suggested that keeping age restrictions are beneficial to players. They suggest players would get a chance to work on their craft, become educated, and learn to prepare for an independent life away from their parents.
In an interview with Klosterman (2014), Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner stated:
“Their principal argument is that it’s a restriction on players. And as a philosophical argument, I totally understand that. Of course it’s a restriction, in the same way a draft is a restriction. But our view is that it would make for a better league. You’d have more skilled players, more mature players. The draft would be better. It would be better for basketball in general. Strong college basketball is great for the NBA. And we know those players are eventually going to come to the NBA, whether they are 19 or 20 or 21.”
Although Adam Silver offers some valuable information in regards to the current eligibility rules, there is one issue he didn’t fully address. While his argument is strong, he fails to focus on how prolonged college stays would continue to benefit prospective players who think they are ready to make the jump to the NBA. The benefits associated with an age increase seem to be only helping the colleges, leagues, and their owners. Staying in college for a couple years might not seem like a big deal, but it has costly consequences.
One of those consequences is the effects an age restriction has on an athlete’s lifetime earnings. For example a top draft prospect can make a maximum of five million dollars per year over a four year span (Watave, 2016, p.3). Entering the NBA draft at twenty as opposed to nineteen would cost a player approximately ten million dollars over those first couple years, minus potential endorsements they are not allowed to pursue in college. The biggest effects on a player’s salary come when they receive their second contract (Watave, 2016, p.6). If they are proven stars they can earn upwards to fifteen million dollars a year, and requiring athletes to stay in college could result in a player losing out substantial amounts of money.
Secondly, college athletes are susceptible to academic clustering. Academic clustering is when athletes gravitate towards similar majors. In a study done on academic clustering, it was found that athletes may be encouraged to pursue a degree with their sport as a priority (Schneider et al, 2010). Advisors may persuade the athletes to choose an “easy” major, or the athletes may choose a major that works best with their schedule. In many cases, athletes aren’t choosing a major that interests or challenges them, but instead, they are choosing a major that will keep them eligible on the court.
Although waiting a year or two might not seem like such a long time, the opportunity cost of someone forgoing one or two years in the NBA is substantial. If their hearts are set on pursuing a professional sports career, not only are they losing out on millions of dollars, but they are losing out on a meaningful education. Higher up education is extremely valued in sectors like health and business, but in the entertainment industry it’s more about physical and psychological aspects like strength, speed, agility, spacial awareness, determination, and confidence. So why should an athlete’s path to an emotionally and financially happy life be the same as the path to a completely unrelated job?
Prospective athletes face many risks by extending their pre-professional career an extra couple of years. However, this is a choice that each individual has to make. They have to decide whether they want a college degree, whether they want to forego making millions of dollars, whether they want to risk injury, and most importantly whether they want to go pro. This issue isn’t a matter of who is right and who is wrong, but how the two sides can compromise. A proposal that benefits both of the sides is just one of many compromises that should be presented to the leagues and the public in hopes of finding a solution to the current problem.