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A Pay-for-Play Plan That Costs Players Millions

Kudos to Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock for having a plan. Most pay-for-play advocates get as far as “athletes should be paid” and leave it to the NCAA or others to figure out the details.

And kudos to Whitlock for having a plan that touches on many of the issues with the current development structure in basketball. Instead of simply dumping money in kids laps at even earlier age, his plan puts some of it away for a rainy day or further education, enhances the woeful developmental environment of basketball below the NBA level, and includes the type of financial and life skills coaching that future pros desperately need.

But Whitlock’s plan has a fatal flaw because it is based on a shaky if not flatly incorrect assumption. The flaw is that for top basketball players, Whitlock’s plan will cost them tens of millions of dollars over their careers. And the reason this flaw exists is the assumption that college basketball is a necessary step in developing an NBA player.

Step 1 in Whitlock’s plan is for the NBA and NBPA to agree to increase the age limit to four years after high school. Or in other words, to all but remove the NBA’s early entry system. For some players, that would prevent a poor decision to leave early. But for surefire pros, the Kobe Bryants and Kevin Garnetts and LeBron Jameses, it would cost them millions by delaying free agency.

In Michael McCann’s excellent takedown of the NBA age limit from 2004, he explains how this delay costs players money. A player who enters the NBA as a high schooler will have two shots at free agency by the age of 28 or 29. A player who attends college for four years will not get that second chance at free agency until the age of 32 or 33. That is the difference between signing a second max contract in your prime vs. settling for the midlevel exception on the downslope of your career.

If this is America, and we should thus ignore Title IX concerns (which Whitlock could have eliminated by not having the NCAA contribute any money, just a rule change), then we should also not accept a group boycott of athletes who were not parties to a collective bargaining negotiation. Part of capitalism is the freedom to fail, to try something that does not work out.

So why the four-year age limit?

Money will get basketball players to embrace the college experience the way [S]toops does. College is a rewarding and enriching experience. Kids need it. They need the education and the chance to mature in an environment more nurturing, forgiving and wholesome than the fast-paced adult world of the NBA.

There is zero evidence to back this up. In fact, the only research of any kind done on the topic suggests the opposite. In another McCann article from 2005, he challenged the idea that NBA players mature in college. What McCann found is that NBA players who graduated from college or exhausted their eligibility were arrested at a proportionally higher rate than NBA players who had one or no years of college.

To expand the NBA age limit from one to four years at the cost of potentially tens of millions of dollars to top players in exchange for only $1 million maximum after four years of college, there needs to be a much better justification than the unconfirmed benefits of an NBA player going to college at ages 18–22.

Whitlock wants basketball under one big tent. But his desire to preserve, even elevate college basketball’s status requires cramming two three-ring circuses under that same tent, and still does nothing to solve the problems in youth basketball. Tomorrow I’ll explain how to fix those problems, but the answer is simple: eliminate the middlemen.

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