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But It's Just a Game

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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.

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