- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 27, 2011


The best gift from Black Friday didn’t involve arising at an ungodly hour, competing with an unruly throng and spending at an unwise pace. But it did arrive in the wee hours, hammered out by contentious groups that were squabbling over money.

We can unwrap it Christmas Day.

NBA commissioner David Stern saved his legacy and the players saved face in reaching a tentative agreement that ensures 66 games this season and at least six years of labor peace. Talk of Basketball Related Income, hard caps and mid-level exceptions soon will give way to the rookie class, potential trades and free agent signings.

Several things need to be resolved, namely the “B-list” issues, before training camps and the free agent market open Dec. 9. Considering how close we came to no season at all, the remaining issues are of “wake-me-when-they’re-done” importance.

But one in particular — the draft age — could have a dramatic effect on the NBA and college basketball.

Under the current rule, which has been in place since 2006, American-born players must turn 19 during the calendar year of the draft and be one year removed from their high school graduating class. The owners desperately wanted the measure to spare the expense of scouting schoolboys and the risk of drafting them, while gaining the enhanced visibility of players who spent at least a year in college.

The format has worked great for the league. Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were picked Nos. 1-2 in the 2007 draft after their freshman year. The exposure from playing at Ohio State and Texas, respectively, gave them a national profile that wouldn’t have existed a year earlier if they were allowed to enter the draft out of high school.

Derrick Rose enjoyed multiple prime time platforms in leading Memphis to the NCAA title game as a freshman before Chicago drafted him No. 1 in 2008. The past two No. 1 picks have been freshman point guards from two blue bloods, Kyrie Irving of Duke and John Wall of Kentucky. Teams can build their entire marketing plan around such players.

But that’s not enough for some owners, who demonstrated their greed throughout the negotiations. Instead of being content with “one-and-done,” they pushed for “two-and-through,” a proposal that would prohibit players from the draft until after their sophomore season.

The NCAA doesn’t have a problem with that. Neither do some veterans in the NBA, figuring the move lengthens their careers by at least another year. But I imagine players such as Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis, widely considered the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, would object to losing a year of earning power. So would his family and loved ones.

I know it’s hard to get worked up over basketball players waiting a year before cashing their whopping paychecks. But it’s a matter of principle, not principal.

The NBA can’t fall back on safely concerns like the NFL does in restricting freshmen and sophomores from its draft (and even that stance is susceptible to restraint-of-trade challenges according to some legal scholars; after all, teams aren’t forced to draft a player). And the NBA can’t hide behind a paternalistic stance toward high school players, although Stern tried faking it in 2005 before the rule went into effect.

“If players would stay in college and finish their degrees, that would help them personally develop,” he said.

That’s an argument that boils my blood, the urge to treat teenaged basketball (and football) players differently than teenagers in any other field, sports or otherwise.

Of course we want every child to grow and develop. But not every child chooses higher education, not even some who could graduate with honors. The age limit encourages high school seniors who’d otherwise turn pro and be drafted, to attend college instead — regardless of their desire, attitude or aptitude.

We act as if we’re doing them a favor, letting them portray student-athletes while making millions for the NCAA.

We also insult the savvy of outstanding high school students who want to turn pro for business reasons and then continue their formal education. They’re smart and well-adjusted, with terrific life skills and coping ability, yet they’re forbidden from making a prudent decision.

The group with the most at stake — college freshmen and high school seniors — don’t have a vote, so this issue won’t be a deal-breaker. Owners and players will either keep the status quo or tinker with it, and we’ll be back to basketball within in four weeks.

Selfishly speaking, that’s all that really matters

But the age limit is as wrong as two left shoes.

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