In the life of an elite athlete, from the beginning of a youth career until the end of a professional career, there are a number of transitions. There’s the transition from disorganized play to organized sports. There’s the transition from generalization to specialization. And there’s the obvious transition from high school athlete to college athlete.
Regulation of a stable period in an athlete’s career is relatively good. There are many unsettled issues, we don’t agree on everything, but there appears to be general agreement that the regulation is good enough that everyone involved should be expected to follow those rules. We also tend to agree on major trends: financial aid, for example, in the NCAA has experienced much more deregulation than increased regulation over the past few years. Academic eligibility, on the other hand, has seen the opposite.
Regulation of the transitions between periods in an athlete’s career are much more contenious and as a result, much more poorly regulated. NCAA recruiting rules are an example. In 2009, the SEC proposed preventing women’s soccer coaches from even accepting phone calls from juniors. In 2011, women’s soccer coaches will be able to initiate phone calls to juniors once a month.
Regulation of the transition from college athletics to the professional ranks has wandered just as much. After fairly consistently deregulating the professional transition, by allowing draft entry and tryouts financed by a professional team, two recent proposals in men’s basketball have increased regulation of the professional transition by moving the draft withdrawal deadline up to early April.
Another major reasons the transitions in an athlete’s life are so difficult to get a handle on is that one entity rarely has control over all the actors. When it comes to professional drafts, the NCAA can regulate the athletes, but not the teams. The NBA can regulate the teams, but not the players. Regulations can also counter or negate each other. The NBA has a withdrawal deadline of 10 days before the draft, but that is supersceded by the NCAA’s May 8 and upcoming early April deadlines.
The first step in any improvement of the NBA draft process is cooperation between the three entities involved: the NBA, the NCAA, and the NBPA. Cooperation has yielded huge benefits for athletes in MLS. For example, MLS held off intermingling professionals and youth amateurs until the NCAA adopted Proposal 2009-26. Now professionals, newly signed players out of high school, and amateur academy players are all mixing it up in the Reserve League.
If there is cooperation and compromise between the NCAA, NBA, and the players (through the NBPA), the NCAA’s job is relatively light. It would be to simply remove any bylaws that create a barrier to the agreed-upon system. What those rules are depends on the system, although you would expect that Bylaw 126.96.36.199.1.1 would at worst need to be removed and at best be obsolete. When coming up with any potential compromise solution, it’s important to recognize what each side wants out of the deal. College coaches want roster certainty as soon as possible, NBA teams want sufficient time to evaluate the player pool, and players want as much certainty in their draft status as possible.
Many have clamored for the NBA to adopt the “baseball” model, but have focused on MLB’s age limits, where high school graduates can be drafted, but if a prospect enrolls at a four-year college, they aren’t draft eligible for three years. The more critical difference between MLB and the NBA is that no one declares for the MLB draft. Everyone who meets the eligibility requirements is automatically placed into the player pool. This circumvents any NCAA rule prohibiting prospects or student-athletes from “declaring” for the draft. Thus baseball student-athletes are free to be drafted and attempt to negotiate a contract without jeopardizing their eligibility.
Another option is the NHL model. Unlike the MLB’s signing deadline, the NHL’s does not apply to athletes who enroll in college. All 18 year-olds are eligible for the draft. Many college hockey players are playing right now with their rights held by NHL teams. Each year they can attempt to negotiate a contract (up to the NHL’s rookie maximum) and then if they don’t like the offer, stay in school.
Both would have problems when applied to basketball. First, both drafts are big: seven rounds for the NHL and up to 50 rounds for MLB. This is to help support another distinguishing feature of MLB and the NHL: affiliated minor league teams. In addition to larger rosters than NBA teams, NHL teams provide most of the players for the AHL, while MLB teams stock a range of minor league teams at different levels. And while MLB has a slotting system and the NHL has a maximum rookie contract, neither have the strict rookie scale that the NBA employs.
So small rosters and limited draft picks means a draft player returning to college could be devestating to an NBA team. And a rookie scale means there’s no incentive to return to college for a drafted player. The result is that the NBA would have almost free reign to draft whoever they want, rather than who wants to be drafted or who thinks they cannot get a better deal down the road by staying in college.
A better solution is the model employed by MLS. No underclassman or high schooler can declare for the MLS SuperDraft. Anyone who has not exhausted their eligibility is entered into the draft one of two ways: either the league signs them to a Generation adidas contract or a team nominates them for the draft. Obviously an athlete who signs a Generation adidas contract cannot return to school because they’ve signed a professional agreement. MLS then promotes the drafting of the Generation adidas class by exempting the salary from the cap and the roster spot as well.
The NBA could create a similar system as part of a new CBA. After gathering info from teams and scouts, the NBA could offer a guaranteed contract to any underclassman that appears to be solidly in the first round. The contract might be guaranteed at a level equal to the end of the first round (average of $910,000 guaranteed for two years in 2011-2012) and would automatically increase to the draft slot if selected higher than there.
Should the player fall into the second round, the league eats the cost above the player’s draft slot and shoulders the guarantee. Other underclassman could be nominated, and drafted players who refuse to sign after a relatively short signing period would be released, put back into the pool next year, and the team given some sort of compensation (perhaps a salary cap exception to find another player for the roster spot).
How has this worked in MLS? On December 12 last year, Akron defeated Louisville. On December 18, just over two weeks later, Akron knew it was losing five starters from that team. Because of when signing dates fall, Akron coach Caleb Porter had a month and a half to respond before signing day.
The system benefits players by providing objective proof of draft worthy. All the promises in the world mean nothing if they aren’t backed up by an actual contract. The system benefits NBA teams by not requiring an athlete declare, but still signaling to teams who is definitely in or definitely out. It’s hard to feel sorry for a team who took a player who was not fully committed to the league when players who are were available. And if NBA teams moved away from drafting any player who hadn’t signed with the league already, coaches are assisted by being able to point to factual evidence that an athlete is unlikely to get drafted.
At some point, all the parties involved need to come to some sort of compromise rather than pretending that the actions of one don’t affect the others. There’s a significant amount of outcry against the NCAA’s latest move in this ongoing drama. There would be equal outcry at what would develop if the NBA were to trump the NCAA’s regulations by unilaterally changing its draft process. If you think the oversigning debate in football is vicious, it would be much worse in basketball. And as the NCAA will take the brunt of the criticism either way, it’s in the NCAA’s interest to start the dialog.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.