It happens that I also share the name with the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, a onetime Harvard basketball team co-captain who played five years in an Australian pro league. As a sports agent, I was skeptical when I heard that last week my Googlegänger had scolded the NBA and the NCAA in a speech at the NCAA convention in Atlanta. I'm seldom impressed when government officials attempt to address contentious issues in sports. Rather than tackle the big problems, they tend to gas and grandstand and uphold the status quo.
Not, apparently, my fellow Arne. He urged the NCAA to hold coaches more accountable for contemptible behavior and challenged the organization to do a better job of keeping and educating its athletes. To my greater delight, he forcefully attacked this Arne's bete noir: the one-and-done rule. Duncan wants the NBA to drop its age restriction that bars players who want to turn pro right out of high school. He called the policy, which requires that a player be at least 19 and out of high school for a year before entering the league, a "farce" that is "intellectually dishonest" and sets up young athletes for failure. "They are simply passing through your institutions on their way to something else," Duncan told the audience of college presidents, athletic officials and NCAA administrators. "Some of them make it, some of them wash out very, very quickly."
The NBA players' union grudgingly accepted the age rule in 2005, and the policy is expected to be a pivotal issue when the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2011. League commissioner David Stern has long claimed that the restriction is less about encouraging athletes to attend college than it is about hiring athletes who have matured as players. Then again, his real motivation isn't maturity, but money. Eliminating 18-year-olds has saved NBA teams a bundle in long-term salaries. In fact, so big a bundle that during the next round of negotiations he wants the age limit raised to 20. Given how short a career is due to competition and injury, taking away 2 years of a professional career reduces a players' potential career earning power by 20-40%.
The truth is that most players drafted straight out of high school not only excelled in the NBA, but outperformed every other age group of draftees. According to one Harvard study, they surpassed the average NBA rookie in all major statistical categories. Indeed, many of the high school players who bypassed college became bona fide superstars. The roster includes Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal, Amare Stoudemire, Dwight Howard and LeBron James.
The blanket ban of 18-year-olds has had unconscionable racial overtones. Of the first 30 high school draft picks, all but one was black. And of all the pro sports, the NBA has the highest proportion of African-Americans. In the predominantly white games of golf, tennis or soccer, no such age rule has been proposed. Nor has one ever been considered by Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League, both of which draft hundreds of players directly from high school each season. If anything, teen phenoms in those sports are encouraged to turn pro.
Elite basketball players are often Showtime-ready at a much earlier age than their baseball counterparts, most of whom aren't called up for a cup of coffee until their mid 20's. Waiting until a player turns 19 or 20 can significantly diminish his earning power. For the select few, playing basketball in college only jeopardizes pro careers, which, for the most part, are staggeringly brief. An NBA career lasts, on average, barely five years. At the 2009 All-Star jamboree, LeBron James mocked the very idea of the one-and-done rule by saying: "What's the point if you don't want to be in school?"
Of the points Duncan made to the NCAA, only one discomfits me. The Education Secretary suggested remodeling the NBA's age policy along the lines of Major League Baseball's. Players could either enter the NBA draft immediately after high school or three years later. The problem with this, as George Vecsey of the New York Times has pointed out, is that it sounds like enforced servitude "if some prospect suddenly grows into being David Robinson as a college freshman, or suddenly needs money more than he had anticipated."
Under NCAA rules, college underclassmen may test the waters one time without jeopardizing their eligibility, provided that they opt out of the draft more than six weeks before it is held. This system is patently unfair, if only because college players have a month less to decide than European prospects. I propose that early-entry players be permitted to go through the draft and retain their eligibility. This policy change should encompass high school players, too.
I also propose a restructuring of the compensation for second-round picks too green for the NBA. (If a second-rounder decides not to sign, the team that selects him should be awarded a late-second round bonus pick the following year). In return for paying these prospects a salary somewhere in between the NBA's development league standard ($30,000) and the NBA rookie minimum ($455,000), teams would retain their rights for several years. During Year 1, the players would be denied entry to the NBA. If promoted to the parent club during the second or third year, they would be paid the league minimum. To offset salary guarantees, NBA teams could send such players to a European league for a single season of seasoning. Not only would NBA franchises have added incentive to develop Not-Ready-For-The-NBA players, but second-rounders would get some much needed security. (Today about half the players drafted in Round 2 receive little or no financial guarantees). At the very least, the NBDL could market itself as a league of NBA prospects, not castoffs.
In the meantime, the NBA should roll back its minimum to 18, the age at which our nation's courts and legislatures have determined a young man can get married, vote and fight in foreign wars. My Comrade-In-Arne put it best last week in Atlanta: "It is hard to explain why an 18-year-old can serve in Afghanistan, but not play in the NBA."