By David Wilson
I began this post some time ago but sometimes news happens that usurps what I think might be important that day. In the case of this article one day turned into many days. However, since I have some late night time, I’m back to finish it.
Here’s a December 21 “Thursday Bullet” from True Hoops I have major problems with:
The best argument I have heard yet for an NBA age limit comes from a teacher, writing on FreeDarko, who knows that to middle-school students aspiring to play in the NBA–and there are a lot of them–having to go to college is seen as a failure: “The implementation of the age limit will not close the achievement gap. It won’t force books into the hands of inner city youth and supplies into their classrooms. But it will enable teachers and parents to tell their budding 7th grade superstar of the future that the road to the NBA runs through college. How can a 7th grader who knows he needs to go to college not be better off than a 7th grader who thinks college is for failures?”
How naive a statement – an example of “ghetto paternalism.” No matter what the spin-meisters tell you, let it be known that the NBA’s age limit was implemented only so that NBA owners can cut down on the chances of failure when drafting an unproven commodity. That’s it. Period. Point blank.
So, a budding NBA superstar, if a kid is one, has to attend college for one year before scramming to the Association – and that’s a good thing?
I still have yet to hear a good argument as to why no one asks for an age limit in women’s Olympic gymnastics. How about the ATP tennis tour? Think an age limit will work there? The first time a young man’s age has been questioned on the men’s tour was when Donald Young, a black player, turned pro at age 16. Before that no one has ever blinked when Boris Becker, Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal, to name three through time, or the scores of non-black players around the world turned pro.
Until the reorganization of the MLB minor league system, it was nothing for a kid straight out of high school to sign with an MLB team. Even with the rise of college baseball, this still occurs much more often that is reported. No one complains when a kid leaves home after high school in Canada to play in the minors there. In fact, if you’re from Canada you can get sent to a far-flung location to begin your journey, hopefully, to the NHL as early as age 13.
In Europe various sports federations actively scour their country for young talent. When they find a youth who fits their requirements and if the parents are willing, the child is sent to a federation camp in a major city, sometimes hundreds of miles from home. No one complains and if there is a complaint, the parents and or the child is quickly reminded that they should be proud that their child has the opportunity to receive the best coaching the country has to offer.
So what’s the deal with the NBA? Why isn’t this obvious contradiction being reported and raked over the coals? The answer is that primarily, the machine that is David Stern’s creation, wields enough power over sports media outlets to hint that they can be denied access to his product – players, coaches, GMs, the arenas themselves – should they write critically of his major decisions such as the age limit rule. Additionally, many writers, black, white, or other have bought into the idea that an age limit is necessary to the survival of the NBA. One also must remember we’re talking about a corporation, the NBA, that is comprised mainly of minority employees – in this case, black employees. And how many sports writers, given today’s political and social climate, truly want to champion black employees who are perceived by the public to be wealthy, spoiled, wanna-be gangsters?
Unfortunately what fails to be taken into account in this matter is the crucial shift in America and Western values from individual and internal wealth to collective and external, image-based wealth. This shift directly coincides with America’s transition from an agrarian, rural society to a corporate-industrialist, urban-suburban society that began almost 65 years ago and has now been so refined that it is an integral component to the fabric of our society, and honed so sharply that it can be pointedly directed at any source of disaffection with its desires.
As a result of this shift, we live in a time and place where a premium is placed on money as the progenitor of power as opposed to there being premiums placed on the power general knowledge, self-awareness, and awareness of the world around us. We are fed this message in some form or fashion from the cradle to the grave. Since at least 50% of marriages end in divorce, half the children in the U.S. are raised in one-parent households. And despite the best efforts of a single parent, a child raised in this environment is more prone to external environmental pressures than a child raised in a nuclear family.
Those external pressures come in the form of the usual suspects: peer pressure, various socio-economic environments that tend toward the negative, the images placed before children on television and in films, public school systems geared toward advancing superficial overall statistical success and group think instead of being geared toward empowering youth to become self-sufficient individuals. The value shift manifests itself in the NBA fan by the outward and incessant backlash toward the athletes paid to entertain them: racial epithets verbally hurled at players are once again in vogue; old and weary racial stereotypes pertaining to NBA players, and black athletes in general, have found a renewed source of energy; and the cry of reverse racism can again be perceived when NBA players seemingly exorbitant salaries are held as reasons why they should turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to mal-intentioned, misanthropic fans and belligerent and often outwardly-spiteful media members.
With our misplaced values it is now impossible for someone like Muhammad Ali to exist today. It is almost impossible for great athletes like Bill Russell to speak out on social topics like war, racism, education, or the environment. If Russell, with his mindset and awareness played today his voice would be stifled by those who sign his endorsement checks. He would not stand that chance of being blackballed by owners who don’t share his opinions. He would be castigated by pliant media members seeking only to curry further favor with the leagues and teams they cover.
Today’s basketball player is consumed with creating a video highlight for himself instead of assisting a teammate with the perfect bounce pass. Today’s baller’s goal is to have his own segment on MTV Cribs, to show off his crib, his whips, and his accoutrements. Today’s baller wants to go clubbin’ and know he can pull any garden tool in said club instead of sitting in his modest home and pouring copiously over film of his play and film of his future opponents. Today’s basketball player rarely solicits the advice of older players so that he can gain a sense of the history of the game he plays, so he can relate the external environment of today’s game with that of yesterday’s. Today’s player has little or no thirst for knowledge.
If David Stern wanted to advance his product in a responsible fashion, he would take that $125 million he and the team owners made from the deal with Russell Athletics and develop some programs for his present players and for those who are on the cusp of entering the Association. I’m not talking about the programs now in place through the NBA Players’ Association (NBAPA) like the “Rookie Transition Program” or the “Financial Education Program.” I’m talking about mentoring programs between current and former players with the former players being paid by the League, not the NBAPA where each team is assigned five former players to be available for the current players on a team’s roster. These mentors have offices at the team’s facilities and players can access them at any time for any number of purposes: to act as impartial go-betweens for the players and coaches; to provide historical perspective for players; to act as father figures, if you will, for young men who suddenly have been imbued with more money than they know what to do with and less freedom than they realize.
The NBA and the NBAPA should make the Rookie Transition Program a month-long program (it is now a week-long program) so that rookies gain a comprehensive understanding of the world in which they are about to enter. The former player as mentors for each team should also be in attendance at this seminar. In one week a player may gain a rudimentary understanding of the journey but it takes one month – at least – for these young men to be able to internalize what they are being taught. One month away from their crew, the people wanting handouts, and the agents urging them to sign this or that endorsement deal. One month of education. One month to be shown that the NBA cares – not about the image of giving to others, but about its players.
By indoctrinating rookies into a caring environment, by showing even the most grizzled veteran that they too have an older ear to listen to their problems and concerns, Stern will find he has no need for age limits. He might even find that his NBA becomes a players’ league in practice, not just in appearance or theory.