The battle between maintaining a college athlete’s amateur status and paying them for profits the university makes off their labor has continued to surge as colleges consistently see increased profits from their athletic departments, while the athletes remain unpaid.
This issue is not likely to die anytime soon, especially with a newly unveiled program designed to allow the nation’s best amateur basketball players to become professionals and get paid a salary.
The National Basketball Association recently announced that beginning next year, a group of select players will be able to bypass college and enter the NBA’s developmental league (the “G League”). This program has been created in response to years of litigation and debate over the “one-and-done” rule that has been in place in college basketball since 2005, the last year that high school athletes were eligible for the NBA draft.
The “one-and-done” rule requires that, to be eligible for the NBA draft, American players must be at least 19 years old and one year out of high school.
This rule caused many of the great talents currently in the NBA to go to college for one year and then enter the NBA draft after the year’s completion.
The rule has also prevented players from earning income out of high school, which has created its own set of issues for those athletes from lower-income households and communities.
The reasoning proffered by the association for the rule was that 18-year-olds were not mature enough physically, socially, or mentally, to enter the NBA, and one year in college would give them the opportunity to enhance their skills on and off the court.
In reality, there is no empirical evidence to support that age (19 versus 18) is a justifiable proxy for sports skills or intellectual or social maturity in the NBA. What is measurable and verifiable is that the one-and-done rule further enriched college programs. Just last year, the University of Louisville earned more than $30 million off of their men’s college basketball team alone.
Many prominent voices and outlets have expressed growing concerns over the amateur/professional debate. The NBA under Commissioner Adam Silver has only recently shown a desire to modify this rule for the betterment of their future players. He modified the NBA approach with input from players such as LeBron James, who suggested earlier this year that the G League should be expanded so that the NBA can create a farm system free from the NCAA.
Further, Golden State Warriors coach and former NBA player, Steve Kerr, has made it known that he would like high school players have the chance to skip college and join the rising and talented G League.
Additionally, earlier this year, the NCAA created the Commission on College Basketball led by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
The commission, after a holistic review of the history of college athletes and advice from players, coaches, administrators and agents, created a set of recommendations to address the conundrum of the amateur athlete.
The main takeaways include removal of the one-and-done rule, allowing players unselected in the NBA draft to return to school and allowing agents to “engage” with high school or younger athletes.
All of these considerations have led to where the new G League plan stands now. The commission has expressed its desire to go back to when players had the option to turn professional out of high school, rather than feeling forced to play one season in college where they would not even obtain a degree.
The news has not been all bad for college athletes seeking compensation. In 2015, the NCAA changed its rules allowing schools to offer athletes the full cost of attendance outside of tuition, which has averaged between $2,500 to $5,000 per year depending on various factors including cost of living in that particular geographic region.
In addition, in a case recently and partially decided in favor of former college athletes, a settlement awarded $208.7 million to a class of about 40,000 former Division I football and basketball athletes. In Re: National Collegiate Athletic Association Athletic Grant-in-Aid Cap Antitrust Litigation, 311 F.R.D 532, 537 (N.D. Cal. 2015).
However, the problem remains that athletes are being forced to go to college despite their future plans and intentions. Thus, the NBA’s G League solution was created.
The G League has previously allowed younger players to play, but at a reduced salary and with less effort or intention to turn the players into NBA professionals. It has also lacked the talent in the past several years to garner attention when it was previously known as the NBA Developmental League (the “D League”). With this new plan of action, the G League will see an increase in participation and interest while creating a unique way for athletes to develop into professional basketball players.
The plan, said to be starting in the summer of 2019, calls for the G League to offer “select contracts” worth $125,000 to elite prospects who are at least 18 years old, but not yet eligible for the NBA draft. The program allows for players to play under said contract for one season, after which they will be eligible for the NBA draft.
The pool of athletes includes soon-to-be and recently graduated high school students who, as stated by G League President Malcolm Turner, will be part of a program “geared toward facilitating and accelerating their transition to the pro game.”
The off-the-court aspect is extremely important to the NBA as well since maturity was an articulated, though unsubstantiated, reason behind implementing the one-and-done rule. The program is said to include activities that enhance life skills, post-career planning and scholarship opportunities for those looking for additional educational routes.
Obviously, the program is in its infant stages and has many matters to address. While the G League hopes to attract more talented players, many will still find opportunities abroad, where players such as Brandon Jennings and Andrew Bogut made their name before entering the NBA.
The key will also be getting the staffs of the G League affiliates to invest a significant amount of time and energy into the scouting and development of players who may or may not decide to go the G League route over college or another alternative. However, with these new changes, the NBA hopes that the G League will be able to compete with leagues abroad as a quality talent pool for NBA teams to pick from.
The NBA has already been planning on completely removing the one-and-done rule by 2021 at the earliest. The association has also increased base salaries in the G League to add even more incentive to skip college. Additionally, college basketball has recently endured numerous scandals, with well-known programs like Michigan State and Kentucky being named in investigations into impermissible benefits being given to recruited players.
It is clear that change is needed, and the new G League opportunity will likely be the first of many changes we see in the development of young athletes.
This is all in an effort to compensate and educate amateur athletes, help them avoid the consequences of losing their careers over taking impermissible benefits and ensure their long-term stability, both on and off the court.