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Arn Tellem Headshot

Arn on Arne

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My mother named me after a brave knight in the Prince Valiant comic
strip. For those not versed in Arthurian legend -- at least Arthurian
legend filtered through the Sunday funnies -- Valiant was a Nordic
warrior whose father ruled a region called Thule. Valiant's rival for
the maid Ilene was Prince Arn of Ord. Prince Arn was the original
owner of the Singing Sword, a charmed chunk of cut-steel that was a
sister to King Arthur's Excalibur. To make a short story long, my
first name is hardly ever spelled -- or pronounced -- correctly. (I
wouldn't be going out on a limb to say that I have often been called
Arm). As it turns out, even I had it wrong. It wasn't until I applied
for a marriage license shortly after graduating from law school that I
realized the name on my birth certificate was "Arne." So much for
those smart-alecks who insisted my name derived from the call letters
of the Arab Radio Network.

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."

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