When it comes to the NCAA’s relationship with professional leagues, many of the problems are thrust upon it. Were it not for age limits and the lack of developmentally-focused minor leagues, the contention that the NCAA is just one path of many for prospects to get the pros would have more weight. But some problems are the NCAA’s fault and the best example is the NCAA’s draft rules.
In basketball, the squeaky wheel in the NCAA’s draft rules has been the increasingly early date for prospects to withdraw from the NBA draft. But as the college and NBA seasons gear up, Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com went one further, looking at whether basketball student-athletes should be allowed to return after going undrafted or even if they are unhappy with their draft position. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman and Portland head men’s basketball coach Eric Reveno say yes.
Parrish says no, and cites two reasons. First, that the NCAA should not be worried with trying to stop adults from making bad choices:
Young adults, sure. But they’re still adults free to make all sorts of questionable life decisions, and I’ve never understood why folks are so anxious to try to protect basketball players from possibly bad decisions when thousands of college students make similarly questionable decisions every single year.
Prior to that, Parrish raises the practical issues:
A college basketball season is over for most prospects by mid-March; the NBA Draft isn’t until late-June. That’s a long time to float between the categories of “amateur” and “professional.” So I don’t believe allowing underclassmen to return to school with eligibility remaining after the NBA Draft would be practical unless the NCAA is willing to reexamine its concept of amateurism and extra benefits, and there’s no real indication that the NCAA would be willing to do that, or even that most college coaches would want it.
There is a lot to unpack here, but before getting into Parrish’s objections, it is important to bring up something he did not address: that the NCAA’s draft rules have no basis in amateurism.
Entering a Draft ≠ Professionalization
At their core, the NCAA’s amateurism rules are based on the concept that the dividing line between amateur and professional is profit. Both amateur and professional athletes might make revenue, but the amateur spends all his or her earnings on the expenses necessary to play the sport. The professional is one who makes more playing the sport than he or she puts into it.
All of the NCAA’s amateurism bylaws are not consistent with this principle and the ones that are not generally are trying based on trying to guess intent. If you hire an agent, someone whose most important job is to help you capitalize on your athletic ability and reputation, that is a good sign you want to profit sooner rather than later. Same if you sign a professional contract even before actually receiving the money, although both of these are debatable.
But entering a draft is not a good predictor that an athlete is ready to give up his or her amateur status and start profiting. For starters, on the continuum of activities from amateur to professional, entering a draft is much closer to the amateur side than trying to negotiate a professional contract. The draft declaration, not actively engaging with a professional team to try and get a big enough contract, is the one that costs an athlete his eligibility. Entering a draft and going through the entire process is also the most reliable indicator of an athlete’s value to professional teams when they are trying to decide whether to leave college or stay.
Limitations on entering a draft are not consistent with the NCAA’s definition of amateurism. And unlike some of the other harder-to-justify amateurism rules, there is not a huge benefit to using draft rules as a shortcut to find out who still wants to be a student-athlete or not.
We Have the Technology
Parrish’s practical argument against the allowing players to return starts with his most difficult task: explaining away baseball.
I realize college baseball players theoretically do it. But basketball and baseball are two different deals entirely, and, regardless, the Major League Baseball Draft actually happens during the college baseball season. So nobody is asking baseball prospects to maintain their amateur status for three months after a season ends while they’re waiting to learn if they’ll like where they’re selected (or if they’ll even be selected at all).
Parrish gives no explanation about why baseball and basketball are different. It cannot be because basketball players have to declare for the draft because that begs the question. And if the NBA’s popularity and basketball’s status as a revenue sport make a difference, that would just confirm the accusation that the NCAA is treating revenue sport athletes differently.
The ease of baseball players going through the draft process is also a recent development. Before the most recent MLB collective bargaining agreement, there was no rookie scale and prospects had until August 15 to sign with a team (shortened from almost a full year prior to 2007). That CBA also created MLB’s more rigid slotting system, which has in effect created a rookie salary scale. Until two years ago, baseball prospects had to navigate many of the same pitfalls basketball players would face, for a similar period of time. On top of that, baseball student-athletes had to negotiate their contract without the full assistance of an agent while maintaining their amateur eligibility.
It was not without hiccups but the NCAA and its members figured it out. As for Parrish’s contention that the NCAA will not bend its amateurism rules, this is exactly the area where the NCAA has talked about loosening some core rules, allowing student-athletes in some sports to be represented by agents while going through the draft process. Just because basketball is different than baseball does not mean the NCAA cannot take a process which works well enough for one sport and adapt it to another.
Better Decisions vs. Bad Decisions
The goal of the NCAA’s draft rules should not be to prevent as many bad decisions as possible. It should be to allow for the easiest transition between college and the pros. The current rules for basketball players do not do that. They require student-athletes to make an irreversible decision based entirely on a guess, hunch, or someone else’s advice. Other sports show that it is possible to allow athletes to make that decision based on an actual contract offer.
Just because things worked out OK for Deshaun Thomas does not mean he made the best choice or the choice he would have made if he had all the information. Limiting the number of athletes involved to just the 10 who might have thought they were going to NBA but did not undersells the scope of the problem. What about the players who made an NBA roster but would have come back if they were not first round or lottery picks? Or the players who might have been able to boost their draft stock high enough to leave but instead chose to stay and will be drafted lower next year than they might have been this year?
Asking whether the NCAA should help this players is the wrong question. The debate is whether the NCAA should get out of the way of this process and allow players the most freedom to make a choice. Parrish questions whether college coaches will accept this, since much of the burden falls on them. They will not, but that should not matter. The inconvenience to college coaches of not knowing who will be on their rosters is not a good enough reason for this rule in an organization that claims to focus on student welfare first and foremost.