Former Everett hoops star ignites NBA age debate
Critics say minimum requirement of 19 delays big paydays of talented players
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Maybe Nerlens Noel would have blown out his knee, no matter where he was playing.
But if Noel — Everett native, University of Kentucky freshman, and presumptive number one NBA draft pick — had shredded his left anterior cruciate ligament last month during a professional game, rather than a college contest, his fortunes would be very different.
The 6-foot, 10-inch, shot-blocking savant is good enough to be making millions in the NBA right now. But the league’s minimum age requirement of 19, which is lucrative for both the NBA and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, delayed Noel’s payday.
When he crumpled to the floor against conference rival Florida, casting doubt over his promising future, Noel rekindled a national debate about the merit, fairness, and even the legality of the NBA’s eligibility rule.
“It’s blatant age discrimination,” said Louis Pechman, a New York labor lawyer who has studied the NBA’s age rule and believes it is illegal. “If I’m 18 and this is my meal ticket, it’s ridiculous. I can work at General Motors; I can work at McDonald’s. Why can’t I work in the NBA?”
Had Noel been eligible for the 2012 NBA draft, he might have been selected as high as third overall. Last year’s actual number three pick, Bradley Beal, is making $4.1 million in the first season of a four-year, $18.7 million contract with the Washington Wizards. He earns even more from an endorsement deal with Nike.
Instead of a contract and endorsement, Noel got a scholarship worth about $30,000. Though he owns an insurance policy that would pay him in the case of a career-ending injury, Noel still faces eight months of rehabilitation before he can begin the pro career for which he was qualified last year.
The rule’s benefits to the NBA are clear. For one thing, the public exposure players receive in college makes them more valuable marketing assets as rookies than they would be if they entered the league directly from high school, said Stephen McKelvey, director of the sport management graduate program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Only hard-core basketball fans were familiar with Anthony Davis, last year’s number one draft pick, when he was a senior at the Perspectives Charter School in Chicago. But even casual fans knew him after he led Kentucky to a national championship as a freshman.
Noel, known for his box-top afro that recalls Will Smith’s hairdo in “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” appeared to be on his way to similar fame.
“It’s very helpful from a marketing standpoint to have players make a March Madness run, like an Anthony Davis or a Carmelo Anthony,” said a former NBA executive who declined to be identified because he’s no longer authorized to speak for the league. “That’s very real.”
The NCAA, also, has an obvious incentive to back an NBA age restriction. Having top prospects play at least one season of college basketball makes fans more likely to watch amateur games on television, said Roger Noll , an economics professor at Stanford University who has studied sports broadcast deals.
A budding star can elevate a regular-season game involving a mediocre team into appointment television, Noll said.
Rights to broadcast the NCAA’s postseason men’s basketball tournament have become far more expensive since the NBA age requirement was implemented, though many factors contributed to the hike. In 2010, CBS and Turner Sports agreed to pay the NCAA $10.8 billion over 14 years for the right to broadcast its annual tourney — a 41 percent rate increase from a deal signed in 2002, when standouts were free to turn pro after high school.
The payoff for players compelled to put their professional aspirations on hold is less apparent. While Noel’s insurance policy would reportedly pay him $10 million in the event of a career-ending injury, the age rule has forced the son of Haitian immigrants to wait a year before offering financial assistance to his family.
Noel spent two years at Everett High before he transferred to the private Tilton School in New Hampshire. He told ESPN in 2011 that his mother, Dorcina, was separated from his father and worked two jobs to support him and three siblings until back injury made such rigor impossible. He said his mother’s struggle has driven him “to make it for myself and my family.”
Kentucky declined to make Noel available for an interview, and neither of his parents responded to interview requests.
The former NBA executive argued that for many players, the maturity they gain in college makes them better — and, eventually, higher-paid — professionals. But in the short term, he acknowledged, the rule “is a tremendous economic disadvantage for the players.”Continued...