The NBA allowed high school players to make the jump until forging a compromise with the union in 2005; now, players must be at least 19, which means they must spend a year in college first. The response, especially with regard to the NBA, was predictable. Indiana Pacers forward Jermaine O’Neal, one of the last high schoolers to jump before the rule change, publicly wondered why tennis players and golfers aren’t urged by society to attend college, implying that the world is exclusively picking on poor black basketball players. His view was shared by many, including Jack Keefer, the boy’s coach at Lawrence North in Indianapolis. Keefer coached Greg Oden, the country’s top high school player in 2005-06, an excellent student and a center who would’ve been among the top players chosen in the 2006 draft if not for the age-limit. Instead, Oden went to Ohio State. Keefer called the rule “racist” and unfair. “Greg is going to college because he can handle college,” he said, “but Greg and other high school players should have a choice, and in this case, the NBA took that choice away.”
Well, first of all, it’s awfully hard to conclude that the NBA, which employs more blacks in front office and management positions than any sports league, might be a racist organization. Those who share the opinion of Keefer and O’Neal are implicating David Stern in this discussion, and the commissioner, who pushed hard for the rule, is more colorblind than a dog. His track record on racial matters speaks for itself. Plus, the age reform was done with the cooperation of the NBA union, which is run by Billy Hunter, a black man. So much for the racial angle. I will give the critics this much: There’s a noticeable lack of fuss regarding Michelle Wie and white hockey players and white tennis players who don’t bother with college. Has anyone ever raised this issue when Andy Roddick turned pro? Pete Sampras? Andre Agassi?
However, the NBA’s age-limit rule was put into place purely for economic and competitive reasons, not racial reasons. When a player is drafted in the first round, that team must pay him guaranteed money for five years. That amounts to millions of dollars, and in the case of high school players, NBA scouts simply aren’t given much history to work with to allow them to make an intelligent choice. It becomes an expensive gamble. A great high school player can become an average NBA player in a flash. Kwame Brown, anyone?
And on a personal note, I couldn’t care less that no noise is ever made about Roddick and the rest of the white high school phenoms. Given the alarming state of academics in the black community, why should anyone, for any reason, even suggest that it’s OK for black people to skip school? What kind of message does that send to athletes in urban America looking for any reason not to study or take school seriously? What kind of message does that send to society? You’d think critics of the NBA rule would pause and weigh the repercussions of their criticism. Is there a double standard when it comes to gifted white teenaged athletes and black teenaged athletes? Perhaps. Should there be a double standard? Damn right. At least as long as black academic achievement continues to trail white academic achievement by a wide and shameful margin. Also, consider this: Chances are pretty good that if tennis or golf doesn’t work out for the white teenaged player, his family likely has the financial ability to send him to college and give him a soft landing cushion. Or he’ll simply go to work for his father in the family business. If basketball doesn’t work out for the poor black teenager, well, you can only imagine what happens next.