The Principles of Liberty that Apply to the NBA Age Limit

News was made recently in the sports world on two fronts regarding how the NBA will assess the path for elite high school basketball players and what will happen to the controversial “one and done” rule. First, the NBA G-League (essentially the minor league of professional basketball) announced the start of a program that would offer $125,000 contracts to the best high school basketball players in the nation instead of playing in college. While that goes on, league commissioner Adam Silver is trying to reach an agreement with the Players Association on lowering the minimum playing age to 18. The G-League contract program would begin in 2019. The lowering of the age requirement is aimed for the year 2022.

These developments would, of course, have a huge impact on the college basketball game as we know it today. As it stands currently (and has since 2005), the NBA requires those entering the draft to be at least one year out of high school and be at least 19 years old. There had been no realistic alternative to playing basketball in college during this time unless a player was willing to play professionally overseas. The G-League’s program will certainly lure away many of the better high school basketball players from the college game until the NBA drops the age limit and allows those players to enter the draft.

This is all very good news for those like me who have been critical of the NBA’s age requirement and want to see players get paid in some capacity since the NCAA will not allow it. I’ve written about the NCAA, the “one and done” phenomenon and how they relate to the professional game before. What I would like to do here is discuss the libertarian, or free market principles that apply to how the NBA should approach the issue of elite talent coming out of high school. These are the principles that have led me to the conclusion that the NBA was foolish to raise the age above 18 in the first place.

The Right to Your Labor

As an adult, you should have the right to enter into a contract with an organization that is willing to contract with you. Certainly the NBA has the right, as a private entity, to make their minimum age whatever they want. But why should an organization prevent individuals from receiving a contract from those within it (the teams) who would certainly offer it to them? If you truly own your talent, you should be able to use it to your own benefit in a free society.

Rejecting Society’s Obsession with College

When the NCAA is criticized for not allowing their athletes to profit in any way off of the value they clearly provide, a defense that is often made on their behalf is that the athletes are able to get a college education instead. The implication being that what you can learn in college can be equally or even more valuable than an athlete’s professional contract. But this claim ignores the declining value in having a college degree (for those athletes who actually graduate), plus the disinterest or inability that many student athletes have when it comes to benefiting from higher level learning. When going to college becomes a sacred cow, being enrolled in one is never questioned for anyone even if they would be better off contributing to society in other ways.

The claim of wanting elite college basketball players to stay in school has become laughable when other collegiate sports are taken into consideration. Do people care about elite high school baseball players choosing to enter the MLB draft instead of taking a baseball scholarship? The answer would be “no” because college baseball does not cause as much viewership as does March Madness. The desire to keep great college players at the amateur level has more to do with people’s desire to see those players compete at that level for a longer time rather than some kind of alleged commitment to higher education.

There is no Substitute for On-The-Job-Training

It is frequently stated during the debate over whether a collegiate basketball player should declare for the NBA Draft or not that the player should stay in college and “work on his game.” However, this seems curious considering that the college game varies so differently from that of the NBA and that the level of competition leads to very different personnel. In fact, according to the NCAA’s own statistics, only about 1.2% of collegiate basketball players will even make it to the NBA level. So why does it benefit an athlete trying to succeed at the professional level if they are going to continue competing in an organization where the overwhelming majority aren’t good enough to play at level in the first place? Clearly the best place to develop your NBA skills is in the NBA. While there, an athlete is able to compete against the individuals that he is trying to improve himself against. The style of play and the level of athleticism work to mold the athlete into someone who can succeed on the highest level. Claiming that trying to do this against an inferior level of talent is more beneficial makes very little sense.

For all of these reasons, those of us who embrace liberty should be encouraged by these developments. Both the G-League’s proposal and the lowering of the age for NBA draftees will go a long way in ending the NCAA’s stranglehold on top level talent that it isn’t willing to compensate. Sure, these two occurrences will cause a decline in the level of talent featured in college basketball. But considering the ongoing resistance to paying the players that so many have profited off of, it’s more than appropriate to say that this has been a long time coming.