NBA draft doesn't get any better with age

June 27, 2006|By RICK MAESE

David Stern, is this really what you wanted? Is this what we wanted?

I scan the mock drafts, study the list of mysterious names and furrow my brow. Is this the NBA draft or the voter registry for Uzbekistan? Looking at the names, I can't tell the difference. And even though the NBA draft is supposed to be a bright spot on the sports calendar, I can't help but think that this year's nameless, faceless list of prospective draft picks is exactly what the NBA deserves.

Darko Milicic would go No. 1 in this year's class.

The rookie game at next year's All-Star weekend will be about as exciting as C-SPAN reruns at 4 a.m.

Wondering who will be the third man off the bench for the Charlotte Bobcats? Tune in tomorrow night!

The most uninspiring draft class in recent memory is a direct result of the NBA's ever-increasing need for control - rules dripping with racial undertones - and indicative of an ever-shrinking autonomy afforded to today's pro basketball player.

It doesn't take a hoops expert to realize that this year's class is weakened by the lack of preps-to-pros hopefuls. The NBA's new age-restriction rules, put into effect after last year's draft, ensure that the only Americans eligible for tomorrow's draft are those who are at least 19 and have likely spent some time on a college campus. It's a one-year lull that will correct itself next year, but at least for now, it allows us to look at a much bigger trend: the league's continued pillaging of player individuality.

There's a problem when one of the most identifiable characters in the NBA is a loudmouth owner. There's a problem when a league is more concerned about a guy's tucked-in shirt than competitive parity. There's a problem when the goal seems to be a paper-doll superstar whose only distinguishing characteristic is his scoring average.

The dress code was silly, but this age-restriction rule is more absurd.

"Just compare it to other sports," says Michael McCann, a law professor at Mississippi College School of Law. "It begs the question, why do we have this in certain sports but not all of them? Why not for golf, tennis, baseball, hockey, any of these sports?"

League officials believe the new rule will improve the quality of play, but excluding 18-year-olds is just another example of the NBA exerting control over its players. But there's no justifiable reason for an age restriction. I happen to like the idea of an 18-year-old choosing to play college ball, but I recognize that it's not always in the best interest of the player. And I also realize that it shouldn't be solely Stern's decision to make.

McCann is vested in the topic. He was a part of Maurice Clarett's legal team when the football player unsuccessfully tried to challenge the NFL's age-restriction rule two years ago.

"Generally speaking, people ... go to college, we mature and we look back at it all as a good life experience," he says. "There's this empirical view that people who go to college do better in life. But we can't mistake the experiences of athletes with the experience that the rest of us have. It's a radically different world. There's a disconnect that we must recognize.

"You also wonder if there's a race issue," he continued. "This all goes to an underlying stereotype of what we think about urban African-American men. There may be a preconceived stereotype that they need to be in school. The facts, though, at least for basketball players, actually suggest the opposite. School isn't necessarily the best answer for everybody."

Before we get to that, you must first accept that this is, in fact, a black-white issue, as uncomfortable as that may seem. Of the 46 prep players who've been drafted since 1995, only one was white. So it's not hard to make a case that the age-restriction rule specifically targets 18-year-old black men.

The NBA sold the public on the rule based on the idea that these young athletes would be better served by at least one year of college seasoning - a preposterous notion from the beginning.

McCann studied American players over the past 15 years. He found that 41 percent of NBA players attended college for four years; the percentage of NBA players who attended college for four years and were later also arrested for some sort of misconduct was much higher - 57 percent.

Among those who skipped college, the number of arrests was disproportionately low - 8 percent of the players in the study did not attend college, but only 5 percent of those arrested skipped school.

So who exactly is more mature and equipped to handle the real world?

And who exactly is served by these age restrictions? Not the pro teams. Not the college teams. And certainly not the players. The only guess I can muster is the fan, the guy who can afford tickets and expensive merchandise, yet has trouble identifying with a culture, an athlete and a lifestyle to which he can't relate.

It's naive to think this age restriction was put in place to ensure that all 18-year-olds experience college life before embarking on the NBA. Stern knows that the league's preps-to-pros players aren't troublemakers, but he needs to appease his target audience. That should strike you as most disconcerting.

You can argue the legality of age restrictions and dress codes all you want, but you have to wonder why the NBA feels a need for this increasing system of control. These rules are a reflection of a league trying to service its audience. And if it's that important to fans that NBA players look a certain way, dress a certain way and act a certain way, what exactly does that say about us?

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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