Understanding Their Plight

By Dr. Boyce Watkins, BASN Contributor
Updated: July 3, 2009

NBA NEW YORK (BASN) — I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Congressman Steve Cohen has chosen to take on the NBA’s age limit. Created in a collective bargaining agreement with the Players Union, NBA Commissioner David Stern has allowed for there to be a 19-year old age requirement for anyone entering the NBA.

Stern has even remarked that he would like to extend the age limit to 20.

Cohen, who apparently has even bigger kahunas than I have, compared the age limit to slavery. “It’s a vestige of slavery. Not like the slavery of 150 years ago, but it’s a restraint on a person’s freedoms and liberties,” he said.

Way to go Mr. Cohen, you will get my vote. Cohen goes on to accurately explain that it doesn’t make sense that a kid can go to the military at the age of 18, yet not be able to play professional sports.

He even admits to the big racial elephant in the middle of the room, the one that reminds us that the majority of athletes being affected by this rule happen to be African American.

I’ve spoken extensively on college sports, the NBA and how black families are being exploited by these systems. People are unaware of the nexus of artificial rules and regulations put into place in order to restrict the labor rights of college athletes.

Those in power understand the dramatic financial value of the black male athlete, and they use the law to control the stream of revenue the same way a dam directs water flow from a river.

Here is the break down of the NBA age limit and why the league wants to put it in place:

- An NBA player is a brand. Brands must be built. Brands are built through marketing. Marketing costs money. If the NBA has an 18-year old that no one knows about, they are going to have to spend the money branding the athlete. If the player goes to college and plays for free, they don’t have to spend a dime. Additionally, the player brings a following from his/her university when they arrive to the NBA.

- Paying a player while they sit on the bench to learn the game doesn’t make as much sense as having them learn the game for free in an apprentice league. The NCAA provides that service. For example, when Carmello Anthony arrived at Syracuse University, I don’t think that anyone in their right mind thought for one second that Carmello was there to actually graduate: He was there to win a championship and deliver that $20 million dollar payday to the university. Derrick Rose at The University of Memphis left school with a glaring 6 credit hours toward his degree. I doubt the administration had any problem with that, as long as he was out on the court making jump shots.

The NCAA loves the age limit because they can earn millions off players and their families, and then act as if it’s a crime for the player’s family to get any of that money. The NCAA earns more money during March Madness than the NFL and NBA earn in their post-seasons. The NBA players union likes the restriction, because existing players don’t have to compete with young superstars coming out of high school.

A major problem with this restriction (among many) is that it is simply unAmerican. While we might want athletes to go to college, the truth is that we should all have the right to make that decision for ourselves.

Additionally, college sport becomes such a distraction to the athlete, few of them are actually educated in the NCAA’s current system anyway. I have taught for 16 years in this system, so I have seen the devastation up close.

“What’s so surprising though is that so many people benignly ignore this clear violation of these workers’ economic right to earn a living. The age limit is simple economics,” said Dr. Richard Southall, a Professor at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The NBA, in concert with every NCAA member institution, restricts the economic earning potential of young basketball superstars.”

I am hopeful that one day, the European pipeline will open further for basketball and football players. Men like Brandon Jennings have found that playing in Europe is a great way to earn money, develop better basketball skills and get a real education, all at the same time.

Sometimes, the best way to get an education is to get away from educational institutions. These days, the black athlete is simply being “institutionalized.”

Dr. Billy Hawkins at The University of Georgia, a leading expert on black males in sports, said this about Cohen: “As a congressman from Memphis, Tennessee I think Congressman Cohen has firsthand knowledge of the practice of “one and done”; not one year but one semester and done.

Derrick Rose did not necessary gain anything from his one semester at the University of Memphis, but he sure contributed to the men’s basketball team’s run at the NCAA championship; and thus to the revenue generated for the University of Memphis Athletic Department.”

I am glad that Congressman Cohen is taking a stand for these young men. I also hope that a community of strong black attorneys will begin to investigate the legal restrictions that cripple opportunities for the families of black athletes.

By remaining firm, focused and fair, we can find a way to manage this corrupt and imbalanced system.