Moneyball, the NBA Age Limit, and Respectability Politics

In case you missed it, the NBA Players’ Association (NBAPA) is gearing up for another fight with the League regarding the age limit of incoming players.

As things stand now, a player has to turn nineteen years old during the calendar year of the draft in order to be eligible to play in the Association. Or, to put it in simpler terms, unless graduated very late from high school or goes off to play international ball, he has to play at least one year in college before making the jump to the pros.

The NBAPA wants to drop that limit back to eighteen years old, so that players will be eligible right out of high school. The union’s argument, per Executive Director Michele Roberts (I am not afraid to admit I am a fan), is that the current limit unduly restricts potential players’ earning potential. The NBA, per its Commissioner Adam Silver, wants to raise the age limit to 20, or roughly two years of college ball, before a player can declare for the NBA draft.

The League’s position is that its owners are already managing significant risk by taking chances on limited-proof commodities — NBA and NCAA hoops are as different as oranges and tangerines, or so they say. Their argument is that the current one-and-done phenomenon is already a bridge too far, and they aren’t willing to spend additional hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars on even more unproven someone(s) who may not translate collegiate success into professional production. For every Shawn Kemp, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, so say owners, there are hundreds of others who are unable to make the leap to the big stage.

When it comes to it, especially in the NBA, the idea of “respectability politics” is not merely limited to sagging pants, oversized hoodies, and laments about single parenthood or welfare for those of a certain hue.

While I am a proponent of higher education, the truth is that, as one of sorority sisters was so fond of saying, “everybody ain’t able and favor ain’t fair.” Anyone who attends or has attended a college or university with athletic programs — especially prominent ones — knows that there are quite a few athletes who are in attendance on a hot wing and a prayer, and if it wasn’t for their athletic scholarship, they’d undoubtedly be flipping burgers back home, and in some cases, doing something much worse.

Perhaps, when we view the NBA’s age limit through this lens, forcing someone who is not academically suited for post-secondary education to attend a college or university seems unjust, at best. Everything isn’t for everyone, despite our society’s (diminishing) view to the contrary.

While there has been progress in the increasing prominence of square pegs opting out of round holes, the default societal norm is still (advanced) education, steady corporate jobs, marriage, 2.5 kids and a white picket fence (dog optional). Anything outside of those parameters is deemed a threat to society, to be frowned upon; it’s simply not “respectable.”

The irony is the fact that such respectability politics are being imposed by a largely traditional majority (NBA owners) upon a nontraditional minority (the players) — all in furtherance of one inexplicable truth: so that players are as palatable as can be to those who purchase tickets, especially the more expensive season tickets and suites. (e.g., former NBA commissioner David Stern and implementation of the NBA players’ dress code.)

Which brings us to NBAPA’s pillar argument: capitalism.

The union’s General Counsel, Gary Kohlman, decided to play the race card, when he stated that the concept of an age limit would be moot if potential players were white and playing in Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League’s farm/minor league systems. Minor League Baseball players must be at least 16 years of age, while hockey players can be anywhere from 16 to 18 years old, depending upon minor league affiliation. When taking these limits into account, Kohlman’s point is little more than a sensationalist non-starter.

Some current NBA players grew up in a trailer park instead of the projects. Some came from countries torn apart by war, disease, and/or poverty. What they all have in common is that, due to current restrictions, none of them can play professionally in America unless they are of a certain age, and unless they are packaged in a way that doesn’t scare off the money.

Again, they must be … respectable.

Race card aside, Kohlman, somewhat inarticulately echoed Roberts’ assertion that the age cap is merely a ploy to depress the maximum earnings potential by artificially curtailing players’ length of service. She has a valid point. Any fifteen-year-old can get a workers’ permit, provided they work no more than twenty hours a week, and outside of normal school hours, per federal law.

In that vein, it seems silly to suggest that eighteen-year-olds (adults, mind you, in the eyes of the law) should be deemed ineligible to qualify for gainful employed in the nontraditional field of their choosing, provided they meet all relevant qualifications. At 18, these young men can vote, they go off to war, and they can be charged as an adult for committing crimes — but they can’t answer the phone should the GMs come calling, unless it’s in some other country? Because, America.

The owners’ argument against investing in small sample sizes of potential player stats is really a non-issue with the rise of using analytics to project everything from skill development, to the odds of making a corner 3-point shot for a certain player, to the oft-quoted Player Efficiency Rating (PER), and even injuries (the latter is currently used by fantasy team owners, but it’s not a stretch to see this eventually in the league itself). Back in the day, owners had to rely on their gut instinct and the work of their coaches for player development. Now, it’s just a matter of plugging in statistics to get a better feel for who may be worth the zeroes on their paycheck, to who may be a bust. Indeed, the popular sports blog/site Bleacher Report recently released an analytics-driven ranking of the upcoming crop of 2015 NBA draft prospects.

For those who decry the use of analytics (*ahem* Charles Barkley, Karl Malone), the team personnel rosters tell the tale of their importance: Most NBA teams have someone on the payroll who is solely devoted to player analytics. The San Antonio Spurs recently won the Best Analytical Team in Professional Sports Award by MIT’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and general manager R.C. Buford won a lifetime achievement award for his work in this field of computerized predictions. The use of analytics is not limited to team employees. Players use them in order to improve their game. Shane Battier, retired two-time champion of the Miami Heat and current ESPN commentator, is a strong advocate for the use of player analytics, citing them as a key reason in his game getting better during his twelve-year tenure in the NBA. Even coaches understand how important analytics are becoming in the current NBA:

“I think all of us, in basketball, want to rely on our instincts more than anything, but statistics confirm or deny certain hunches. I think they also point out things that you may not have realized or understood and force you to evaluate further.” — Frank Vogel, Head Coach, Indiana Pacers

Sure, NBA executives should be wary about taking on younger players with limited fundamental basketball skills and inexperience. From a business perspective, the sample size of college games barely provides an indication of what to expect at the next level. Still, to keep a player from getting what he can, when and while he can, is hypocritical and mean.

Just curious, how many NBA owners had experience running a franchise before purchasing or inheriting theirs, anyway? I’ll wait.

The average career of an NBA player lasts just five years. Instead of vilifying young players for wanting to play at the highest level — and get paid handsomely to do so — for as long as they possibly can, perhaps the Board of Governors should focus on maximizing those same players’ potentials. Heck, if the NBA can work on a solution to fix what ails the current imbalanced playoff structure, then surely it can walk and chew gum at the same time, and figure out how to accommodate the hopes and dreams of those prospective early leapers.

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