The NCAA and NBA are finally having it out. After years of “will they or won’t they” and “are they or aren’t they,” the two most important organizations in American basketball are gearing up for a sustained fight. It’s a fight which if not diffused quickly could lead to radical changes in how basketball operates in this country and how players are developed. These changes will make many people unhappy. This post is about why I hope this fight is not diffused quickly.
The fight started with President Mark Emmert’s comments about the NBA’s 19 year-old age limit that requires basketball players to spend a year doing something:
“I happen to dislike the one-and-done rule enormously and wish it didn’t exist. I think it forces young men to go to college that have little or no interest in going to college.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern had a rather pointed response:
“A college could always not have players who are one and done. They could do that. They could actually require the players to go to classes. Or they could get the players to agree that they stay in school, and ask for the scholarship money back if they didn’t fulfill their promise. There’s all kinds of things that, if a bunch of people got together and really wanted to do it, instead of talk about it.”
Let’s quickly get one thing out of the way: both men are correct. There are a group of athletes who, but for the age limit, would be in the NBA. They are in college because they decided that college basketball was the best alternative. And the NCAA, conferences, or schools could adopt any number of policies designed to fight the effects of the one-and-done rule. But neither really addresses the other. You still have athletes who would rather not be in college and it is still not the NBA’s problem.
This fight is unlikely to go away because conventional wisdom says each group needs the other. Operating a U23 developmental league on the scale of Division I would be impossible for the NBA on its own. And if the NBA removed the best players from college basketball, interest would drop some amount. Both of these facts are true, but both are also irrelevant.
The NBA does not need to operate a developmental league at the same level of the NCAA, with full rosters of NBA-age players, additional facilities, and another administrative staff. The NBA simply needs to operate cheaper youth teams (at least two, one for high school freshmen and sophomores and one for juniors and seniors) and expand rosters using development slots at below the current minimum salary to make teams large enough to support a reserve league. Youth and reserve teams would leverage existing infrastructure, drastically cutting development expenses. Broadcast partners and sponsors, especially shoe companies, might pay for the entire project.
There’s also not great evidence that college athletics needs a steady supply of would be pros to be popular. College baseball has reached record levels of revenue and popularity at the same time MLB clubs were throwing so much money at kids to not go to school that it became the central issue in the new collective bargaining agreement. The same goes for college soccer, which continues to grow despite MLS shifting money to its own developmental system.
If this were the end of it, the answer would be simple. One quick meeting between Emmert and Stern and aside from fending off the conspiracy theorists, the issue would be settled. The outcome would be a different type of early entry system, one that used all or parts of the MLB, NHL, and MLS systems. But this needs to be a knockdown, ugly drag out fight because of something the two men agree on. First President Emmert:
“If you want to become a professional athlete, there’s no better place to go generally than to come to one of our schools to develop your skills and abilities.”
And Commissioner Stern:
“For our business purposes, the longer we can get to look at young men playing against first-rate competition, that’s a good thing.”
Both make the assumption that college athletics is the best way to develop and evaluate future professional athletes. I can concede that it is the best system in existence in the United States at the moment. But the best possible? Far from it. At the risk of beating a dead horse, developing future pros is not a high priority of the NCAA. If you look at the NCAA’s rules, it’s much easier to conclude that the rules are designed to prevent athletes from becoming professional athletes rather than to help them. Some examples:
- Athletes are limited to a maximum of 20 hours per week of training. But during the season, that 20 hours has to include games, each of which cuts into training by 3 hours.
- During the offseason, athletes are limited to just eight hours of training. Skill instruction is further limited to just two hours of those eight. For long portions of the year, no training can be required at all.
- Athletes are generally prohibited from even requesting additional skill instruction because of the way the NCAA has defined voluntary activities.
- Athletes are required to pursue an academic career parallel to their athletic one, which takes away from the time and energy they can devote to improving.
- Staffing and recruiting limits make evaluation and selection of athletes with the most potential to be pros more difficult.
- The NCAA operates (or allows to operate) national championships that become the primary focus of a coach’s job, rather than developing future professional athletes.
All of which makes it curious that the NBA has chosen to outsource its development when an organization with completely different priorities is the best alternative. In fact, far from simply taking advantage of a free service, the NBA once looked to invest directly in the NCAA as a development system, according to Stern:
“Years ago I said to the NCAA, I’ve got a great idea. We’ll insure a select group of basketball players. And that will make them more likely to stay in school, because they won’t feel the loss of a big contract. We’ll designate a pool and those lucky enough to be drafted and make money will pay us back, and those that don’t, it’s our expense.”
That’s odd immediately preceding a quote where Stern says he is not concerned with the NCAA and that NBA rules are not “social programs.” But even stranger is that the NBA was willing to pour money, maybe millions of dollars depending on the size and success of the program, into something it has no direct control over. The NBA is either happy with the quality of player it receives (which it isn’t because it is looking for more time to evaluate) or it likes the exposure players get by playing college basketball (which is odd given the animosity of NBA fans to college basketball and the fact that the NBA is the world leader in marketing individual athletes).
Neither explanation makes sense, so something else might be at work. My gut is that the NBA has in the NCAA a convenient set of excuses for why some players never pan out and some teams never make good decisions. This role of whipping boy is one the NCAA is increasingly unwilling to play. That especially applies to accusations about policies it has no role in drafting (like the NBA age limit) or that it ignores its own rules to protect income it doesn’t receive (like in the regulation of FBS football).
Thus the coming showdown. The war of words over whose “fault” the one-and-done “crisis” (both terms used loosely) is has already started. Both organizations have their next move in the works. The NBA and the union are studying the age limit with a possible move to 20 years-old and two years out of high school. The NCAA is mulling reductions in the number of basketball games and has already passed new initial eligibility requirements that may sideline for a year many of the players the NBA was looking to get extra time to evaluate.
If the current trend continues, the NCAA will increasingly move toward not being an acceptable alternative for the NBA’s purposes. At some point, the NBA would have to move toward a more active role in identifying potential pros at a younger age and investing directly in their development through youth and/or reserve league teams. Not to mention a mechanism to sign homegrown players that both provides an incentive for teams to take youth development seriously but still provides a degree of competitive balance.
And much to the chagrin of partisans in this debate, both the NBA and the NCAA will be fine. College basketball was fine in the prep-to-pros era and will be fine even with more athletes heading to the NBA directly from or even during high school. And the NBA will find it is better able to develop and market elite talents on its own rather than assuming college basketball will do it for them. The tie that binds the two together, the NBA draft, will still exist but it’s impact will be defined by how many players slip through the cracks in the new NBA system. But it will be of secondary importance rather than the be all, end all for many young basketball players.
One might look at all this and say it’s a lot to extrapolate from two press appearances. It is. One might say I’m blowing this out of proportion. I am. In fact, I’m deliberately trying to pick this fight because it needs to happen. Because until it happens, the sport cannot move forward.