Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


But It's Just a Game

ryan-field-northwestern

Ryan Field at Northwestern University. (Photo: larrison/Flickr)

How Thomas Piketty Explains American Sports

• May 13, 2014 • 12:05 PM

Ryan Field at Northwestern University. (Photo: larrison/Flickr)

The age limits in the NBA and NFL were both the result of a small, powerful group using that power to fortify its current position. Sound familiar?

Two week ago, Northwestern’s football players voted to decide whether or not they should form a union. This historic possibility was made historically possible when the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that, in direct contrast to decades of NCAA policy, the athletes do in fact qualify as employees of their university and so can unionize. Why are the players trying to do this? From the introduction to the NLRB’s brief:

[T]his case is not about how much money Northwestern makes from football, or whether Northwestern is a good employer, or whether the compensation provided to the Players is fair. Nor is it about the quality of the education that the Players receive at Northwestern. Indeed, the Players view Northwestern as a good employer. They appreciate that they receive an excellent education and they take pride in the academic success they achieve while performing what amounts to a full-time job for Northwestern’s football program. But an employee is an employee, whether his compensation is generous or parsimonious, whether he has excellent or tenuous job security, and whether his employer is enlightened or unreasonable. If the employee provides services for and at the direction of the employer and is compensated for doing so, the employee is an employee, and is entitled to the rights and protections of the Act.

Because of an appeal to the NLRB by Northwestern to review that decision, the results of the players’ vote will be impounded until the board resolves for certain that a union can be formed. Over the course of the debate concerning whether the players should unionize, their school, as well as their beloved head coach and the NCAA, have made it very clear that they believe the players will be better off if they decline a seat at the bargaining table by voting “no.” But there’s another element here, twinned to the question of whether college athletes, mostly ranging in age from 18 to 22, should be able to make money off of their abilities: The age limits of the professional leagues. And much in the same way that our economy is stretching further and further toward income stratification, these age limits are holding athletes back.

Investing in the fate of athletes who have yet to reach the pros has no benefit for them—and with a finite number of roster spots available, you could even argue that it would be harmful.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, in his first year on the job since relieving longtime commish David Stern, has voiced his desire to raise the minimum age for joining an NBA roster from 19 to 20 years old. For the most part this would mean an end to so-called “one-and-done” players, guys who play a year of college ball and then enter the draft—this year, a crop that includes most of the highest-profile freshmen in the game, including Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle, and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon. The decision to go pro at 19 is fraught for most—Parker published an open letter in Sports Illustrated to explain his choice—because of the prevalent view that there’s both a purity to the college game and a developmental benefit from staying at school longer. Silver has explained his rationale at length, and it remains a popular, though contested, opinion in the basketball community despite the fact that more than half of the 2014 NBA All Stars spent a year or less in college, including the two best players in the game, LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

We’ve grown so used to the age limits in the NBA and the NFL, which forbids players from entering the league until three pro seasons have passed since they graduated from high school, that it’s easy to forget that these players are legally adults, able to serve in the military, vote, and work under United States law. Yet they’re forbidden from becoming pro athletes. How is this possible? More importantly, how is this legal?

It’s legal because of unions. Specifically, it’s legal because the players’ unions in both the NBA and the NFL agreed to these age limits during collective bargaining with the owners. Back in 2003, former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett, after being forced to sit out his sophomore season, tried to enter the NFL draft only two seasons out of high school by challenging the age limit. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, including now-Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, ruled against Clarett, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, thereby upholding the age limit and confirming the rights of the unions to agree to it.

In the NBA and the NFL—unlike the rest of the professional sports world—there is no effective minor-league avenue for aspiring players. The NBA does, technically, have the D-League, which has an age minimum of 18, but the D-League functions more as a proving ground for lower-level prospects who don’t get drafted rather than as a viable method for top-shelf prospects to reach the NBA. Players can go overseas, but this is a tricky strategy for a whole host of reasons—including reduced exposure to NBA scouts, not being able to speak the language, a different style of play—and only one American prospect of note has pulled it off in recent years, Detroit Pistons point guard Brandon Jennings. Meanwhile, the NFL has no legitimate minor-league system. If you’re a talented basketball or football player, and you dream of playing professionally one day, you go to a D-I school.

Why, then, do the players, by way of the players’ associations, agree to these age limits? Here’s a great explanation by Time’s Jack Dickey:

From where it stands, the rule is no big deal—the presence of younger players in the league would not grant the union a larger share of total revenue, nor would it grow the number of available roster spots or increase the size of player pensions.

But the rule matters a lot to the league. It allows teams to scout players against reliable competition rather than spotty high-school talent, and it allows them to offload three years of important maturation to college programs. Front offices have a better chance of catching bad knees or bad attitudes, thanks to college football. In exchange, the colleges babysit players and get rich, making money both off the team directly and off the increased alumni interest any good football team motivates.

In collective bargaining situations that are filled with issues of enormous importance to the players—guaranteed contracts, percentage of revenue, health benefits, etc.—this is not a hill they’re about to die on. But by signing it into legitimacy, athletes who have already made it to a place where they can be paid to play sports are kneecapping their younger counterparts. They are also, in a way, reflecting one of the issues that plagues modern capitalism.

THE CONCEPT OF “OVER-ACCUMULATION” was coined by economist David Hershey, and with the ascent of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century into bestsellerdom, it’s something that anyone with even a passing interest in economics is probably familiar with. In our current economy, actors who have gathered large amounts of capital tend to invest it in the creation of further capital for themselves rather than funneling it back into production. In turn, the economy stagnates, with the world’s financial resources concentrating in the hands of the rich with no money left over to raise wages for the working class.

What you have in professional sports is a crisis of over-accumulation in a different form. NBA and NFL players who have already reached the professional ranks, particularly the ones with influence and cachet, have control of the means of athletic production. They are interested, and not illegitimately, in securing and developing that control. Investing in the fate of athletes who have yet to reach the pros has no benefit for them—and with a finite number of roster spots available, you could even argue that it would be harmful. They may have been in that same position themselves once, but it no longer has relevance; any interest would be purely altruistic, and considering how stark the difference is between professional and amateur, it’s hard to fault them. Look at our wider society: There’s hardly a shortage of precedent.

Even if Northwestern’s players unionize, achieving any actual benefit from that action could take years. Yet, the mega-rich NBA and NFL are continuing to shore up the NCAA as a free training ground for their talent. The NCAA and its member schools can continue to profit off of their athletes in the major revenue sports—basketball and football—because, as a direct result of the age limits, these athletes have no viable alternative to playing college ball.

We don’t know where the NCAA’s student-athlete model is headed; the Northwestern union is hardly the only challenge it faces, what with a litany of lawsuits and the turning tide of public opinion. But the NBA’s age limit, and its almost certain increase to 20 years old, will only help the NCAA try to secure its footing as the destination for the most talented basketball and football players. College sports may finally seem set to change, but the pros have played a big part in making sure they never did.

Kevin Lincoln
Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) is a writer living in Los Angeles. He also contributes to The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and Grantland.

More From Kevin Lincoln

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


Follow us


Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.