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Age Before Ability: Why College, Not a Contract, Should be the Next Stop for the Student Athlete

Bill Gibron

The NBA playoffs are upon us, and PopMatters covers both sides of the debate surrounding the push to impose age limits on the league's incoming players.

+ The Real Color of Money: Controlling Black Bodies in the NBA by David Leonard

So it has come to this: millionaire athletes complaining that an age limit in their particular sport somehow translates into an unconstitutional act. Worse yet, the "r" word -- race -- has crawled into the conversation, making its potent presence known. While a Caucasian cabal out to keep the young black man out of the NBA may not exactly be the message of Indiana Pacer's Jermaine O'Neal's now famous comments, it surely is what he's suggesting. The sad thing is, had he not decided to go down the path of least logical resistance (as bringing ethnicity into an issue will often do), his anti-age limit sentiment might have sounded astute.

But with the infusion of injustice into the debate, O'Neal avoids the main concern that threatens to maturate next season's lottery pool: the notion that education shouldn't be shuttled aside for the slimmest possibility of a massive payday. At one time in this seemingly noble nation, playing professional sports was a part time enterprise. Oh sure, it sounds as strange as learning that there was once a total faith in the federal government, or that television once consisted of three "broadcast" channels. But it's true. Your average star quarterback had to take an off-season job as a stockbroker to make ends meet, while a power forward or a gifted goaltender was hawking cars or putting in plumbing to feed his family. Sports was not a financial salvo -- it was something done for the love of the game. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and suddenly athletics is a rich man's racket. It takes big money to attend the games and even bigger bucks to field a competitive team. And as for the players, let's just say hitting the lottery should be so lucrative. In the postmillennial world of sports, with its endorsements, higher cultural visibility, and seemingly endless entrepreneurial possibilities, the sky is the limit. All the athlete needs is access -- the sooner, the better.

With such a huge haul of benjamins as the backdrop, it's no wonder O'Neal, and those who would support him, start seeing white (as in sheets) the minute a kibosh is considered on entry into this pecuniary promised land. But don't believe the hype, the only color of concern here is green: cold, hard, contractually-mandated cash. Everything else is a smoke screen for an ever more confusing concept of individual rights and social stigma.

The race argument, for one, is ridiculous, because it asks us to accept some very confusing conceits. First, if the NBA wanted to limit the number of athletes of color that enter the league, why would they choose age as a basis for their bias? Why not be a little more subtle, and suggest a certain grade point average, or a mean set of academic accomplishments? (Prospective doctors and lawyers face this all the time.) Players like O'Neal claim that such a limit would disproportionately affect young urban black males who have no other opportunities to advance their careers. OK. But what about the thousands of disadvantaged youths of color who have no possibility of said opportunity, athletic or otherwise? What is he going to do for them?

Comparisons to the lack of age limits in major league baseball also lead to a blind alley. Baseball has a farm system, a college of hard knocks if you will, where untried players get a chance to prove themselves worthy. Baseball does what colleges and universities can't: simulate the professional experience and gauge an athlete's preparedness for the big time. Sure, some immediately make the field of dreams leap. But a hundred others discover that triple A in the minor leagues is the only ball they will ever be good enough to play.

But this is not about the players, really, it's about getting paid. With multi-million dollar deals being waived in the flush faces of kids who've never known anything but poverty, no one wants to be left out of the life preserver. But, pray tell, what do they do when the payday party is over? Where will O'Neal and fellow underage stars Lebron James and Carmello Anthony be when the prospects that they helped usher into the league, ill-prepared and underdeveloped, are back home in that literal living hell of no money and no job (and, of course, without the necessary scholarship to even consider furthering their education)? Will they be by with a handout and a leg up, or will they be too busy posing for their virtual reality likenesses in the next Playstation 2 product? It's typical of these novice superstars to think in such shortsighted terms. After all, you've got to get it while you can -- something an age limit won't allow.

A career in athletics, though, is not an entitlement. It never has been. It is a privilege, a gift granted thanks to biology and the ability to apply it. A society does not need to create a place for any athlete to play, nor do fans have to favor it with their wallets or their attention (just ask US soccer). To hear these well-paid prima donnas tell it, setting an age limit for entry into any league is to deny gifted players an opportunity to fulfill their destiny and maximize their potential...oh, and to line their pockets with instant riches as well. While he may not like hearing it, (and frankly, such a sentiment is destined to fall of decidedly deaf ears) the world does not owe Jermaine, or Lebron, or any other exceptional athlete a professional sports franchise to play for, period. While they are lucky to be so skilled, they are equally fortunate to have a venue to express said aptitude.

What Jermaine does understand, and what a great many so-called student athletes have been relying on for far too many years now, is that there is a desperation in professional sports, a "do anything for a winner" franchise mentality that drives this age limit discussion. We have glamorized and idolized our sports, making them an integral part of our real, leisure, and fantasy life. How your local baseball or football team does somehow turns into a direct reflection on you and your dignity (just ask those of us who have lived in Tampa Bay all these years). Nobody wants to back a loser, let along be associated with one. And since genetically engineering a perfect squad is still a few years down the road, owners know only one solution to the situation -- toss money at it. Accordingly, salaries have skyrocketed, the fan base has gone fanatical, and Madison Avenue, who never misses a marketing beat, has additional dinero lined up for endorsements, advertising, and sponsorship.

This completely capitalistic notion has even trickled down, past college and high school to the junior high level, with coaches pocketing payouts to make sure the up and coming Kobes or Carmelos all wear a certain style of shoe. While it seems foolish to lament it, sports are no longer hobbies or compliments to another, more mainstream career. For the modern athlete, the big dance of professional sports is all they have, and now we want to take away their supermodel-like remuneration. We must be bigots!

No, actually, we who want limits are realists. Exceptions never guide the rule, and individual need should never, ever outweigh the requirements of the masses. The dirty little secret here is that neither O'Neal, nor other anti-ageists don't want you to know that underage players represent approximately .5% of all players who actually succeed as professionals. The other 99.5% burn out before their first regular season start, or fizzle like a failed firework once the pressure of athletics as a job becomes part of the playing picture. Heck, many don't even make it that far, seeing their dreams die out in a Darwinian dynamic where only the best prospects make it to a draft day decision. For every successful high school player, there are hundreds of has-beens wondering why they wasted all that time on a simple, now stupid game.

The reason O'Neal and his underage companions can feel so fervently justified is because, frankly, this is the Frankenstein we've created. Their belief in the sanctity of sport and its "I, Me, Mine" mindset is part of a destructive indoctrination we've practiced on them for years. When coaches are willing to tweak eligibility mandates and fudge academic requirements, when parents will use relatives and residency as a way to shop their child's skills to a particular program or school, is it any wonder that these creations would de-evolve into self-serving shills? What else can you do when the whole world has constantly revolved around you?

Being such an exception also has a certain level or responsibility that the modern athlete no longer wants to assume. Having long since dispensed with the whole "role model" concept, they now want policy to be formulated to benefit them, not the overwhelming majority of their fellow, unemployed compatriots. And since they, themselves, are ready to turn pro and avoid the university system like a trade notice to the Atlanta Hawks, they think everyone should have that option. If they really were that ill-prepared for a collegiate career, then they shouldn't have to suffer through secondary education. It doesn't matter that learning is the basis of a little thing called knowledge and wisdom, since it doesn't come with a cash bonus. So who needs it?

Sad to say it my friends, but you do. While it may sound strange to such insular ears, sports is not the real world. All the Hummers and cribs, flat screen TVs and video game cameos are the mere trappings of what your talent can bring, but physicality has its limits, and you too will someday reach yours. And where, then, do you turn, when you learn how quickly someone -- yourself, a lawyer, an agent-- can piss away 100 million dollars and have nothing to show for it except a solid gold shower faucet and an angry set of posse members? Reality exists in the decades that will transpire once the roar of the crowd is silenced and those sports talk shows stop calling. Where do you turn then? And don't expect any favors from the higher-ups; if you think an age limit is race- based, trying getting hired on as upper level management at a major sports franchise.

In essence, the whole controversy boils down to a long term vs. short term, big picture vs. narrow-minded dilemma. If the NBA doesn't act soon, the high school graduation standard will be next in line for dismantling (after all, Lebron James was supposedly ready for the NBA as a high school junior). While it may be unfair to digress into a slippery slope argument, someone needs to stand up for the sanctity of the process. We don't make schooling mandatory as a punishment (though a throng of disgruntled students would argue otherwise), nor are we out to make the exceptional suffer because not everyone can be like they are. What an age limit does is remind players that sports is not the end all, be all of their life -- even if that is the story someone has fed them up until now. One day, the final buzzer will sound, and you'll be young, gifted, and borderline illiterate. Now remind us again of the career prospects that can be derived from such a description?

This will all of course still be somehow turned into yet another example of the "man" making life more difficult for mainly minority individuals, a power play based on the acknowledged athletic advances made by players of a particular ethnicity. Who cares if both the college game and the professional arena have been weakened to the point of international embarrassment (remember the Olympics, anyone)? It is not important to keep kids in school, since education is just a ruse, a stepping stone for that fancy house and stylish set of wheels. But isn't it interesting how many of the most vocal advocates are already suckling at the sweet teat of success? Or how silent the failed phenoms have been? Apparently, someone forgot to invite them into the discussion. Maybe they thought they weren't ready. How ironic.

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