Since 1962, 44 high school students have participated in the NBA draft. 31-out-of-44 were selected in the 1st round, while only three didn’t go on to play in the NBA. The list of high school draftees include the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, and Dwight Howard, all viewed as some of the best players to ever play professional basketball.
With over 3,000 players who have played in the NBA over the past 50 years, 44 is not a lot. That’s why when the “one-and-done” rule was implemented in 2006, which prevented high school players to enter the draft, I was caught off-guard.
To take a step back, the one-and-done rule states that players must be at least one year removed from high school and also be at least 19 years of age to be eligible for the NBA draft (Billings, 2012). A simple, yet impactful, change to NBA draft eligibility.
It was introduced in the NBA’s 2006 collective bargaining agreement, a fancy term to denote an agreement between the NBA and the player’s organization to establish rules on matters such as salary cap, roster size, and trades (Billings, 2012).
Without much thought, the introduction of this rule makes sense to most. It allows (or maybe ‘forces’ is the more appropriate word) time for a basketball player to develop and hone his abilities, while opening up a new set of doors into the world of academia. As argued, and with good reason, what many of these young athletes do not consider is life after basketball; since the average NBA career lasts roughly five years. Receiving an education may be a solution to this.
Though, as noted, basketball prospects drafted out of high school makes up less than 0.015% (44/3000, I did the math) of all NBA players from the past 50 years. Since the rule impacts such a small sliver of all prospects, the best-of-the-best, it makes a person question the rationale behind why the rule was introduced in the first place. It wasn’t of major concern prior to 2006. In fact, early-aged draftees were found to generally have more success in the NBA versus those drafted at an older age (Rodenberg & Kim, 2012).
Yet, if one digs deeper, it isn’t difficult to identify who benefits from such a ‘simple’ rule: the NCAA.
Recognized as a cesspool of political, racial and economic contention and controversy, the NCAA makes billions off of the backs of unpaid ‘student-athletes’ (Lane, Nagel, & Netz, 2012). Now, to have a full-year access to the best basketball prospects who wouldn’t otherwise consider the NCAA, there develops a new source of tremendously high economic value; whether through national media attention, stadium attendance, or merchandising (Beauchemin, 2014).
The rest of this blog will take an in-depth look into the one-and-done rule, breaking down the rhetoric and stereotypical conditioning many of us have been a part of, in regards to supporting its existence. I believe that we need to remove the illusion that the one-and-done rule benefits young, NBA-destined athletes, as in actuality, it removes the control and power that they have over their own career, costing them millions of dollars, while creating millions for the NCAA.
Breaking down the counter-argument: The student-athlete illusion
Before moving ahead, it is important to first visit the arguments in support of the rule.
As a sample, Van Jones, in just the first minute-and-a-half from an episode of Crossfire, speaks to most, if not all, of the arguments in support of the one-and-done rule:
(Link): I never thought I would ever be on the side of Newt Gingrich…
“No matter how much money you’re getting paid, the most important thing for a young person is education.”
“Young people need to be focused on their future.”
“Some people like to play the game for the love of the game.”
Although the discussion is framed in the question of, “should a student-athlete be paid?” it speaks to the same themes that embody the pro one-and-done rule side of the debate, which is: Access to free education, time to plan for the future, and supporting ‘the ‘love of the game’ versus seeing it as a business.
Though all in fact positive traits of participating in college basketball, each of these arguments point to a certain type of spectacle, that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shortly discusses afterwards in the above video, of what we as a society understand to be the collegiate “student-athlete“.
The concept of the spectacle, as Debord discusses, “is an illusion that ‘serves as a total justification’ for the conditions and aims of the existing systems. In many ways, the spectacle serves to support and help reproduce an inequitable status quo (Friedman & Andrews, 2010). In more ways than not, the image of the collegiate student-athlete is a way to pacify those against free labour in sports, making many act oblivious to the unequal and advantageous nature of NCAA sports.
At the core of the spectacle of the student-athlete is a belief that the college student is, in many ways, viewed equal to the high school student; in the way that both are young and in school (Beauchemin, 2014).
In the context of secondary school or lower, the student-athlete is typically connoted to the ‘jock,’ a stereotypical label that was placed on students who excelled in sports (Wininger & White, 2008). Even for the more popular high school sports in the United States, such as basketball or football, there isn’t a tremendous amount of pressure on the athlete. Though scholarships may be on the line through both athletic and academic performance, there exists a supportive cast, both financially and psychologically, of family and close friends to assist a student each step of the way (Wininger & White, 2008). There is as well little to no attention from the media or the public eye. For many students at this level, it is the ‘the love of the game’ that encourages them to play.
Now, on a collegiate level, though the title of “student-athlete” remains, the embodiment of the label carries far more weight, especially for those training to enter a professional level within their given sport. As Beauchemin discusses, many collegiate student-athletes experience common stressors including the loss of the ‘star status’ in high-school, potential of being benched, injuries, maintaining eligibility with full course loads, keeping up with time demands, managing new, sometimes exploitative, interpersonal relationships, and most notably, maintaining financial stability (2014). On top of these stressors, when it comes to a nationally-televised collegiate sport such as basketball or football, there develops pressures to perform day-in and day-out in order to maintain the image of being a top national prospect, as the later you are picked in the draft, the less you will get paid. Sometimes millions less.
In a way, when we discuss the collegiate ‘student-athlete’ as a player who “plays for the love of the game” or “should feel privileged for getting access to a free education” or even the idea that they shouldn’t demand pay and compensation, we fuel a certain kind of rhetoric that maintains this spectacle. A means to ignore the real concerns by diminishing the “athlete” in “student-athlete”, while focusing solely on the “student” part; through language and a certain set of misguided beliefs, we are masking the rot beneath the glitter (Friedman & Andrews, 2010). Students are expected to sacrifice time, money, and mental well-being in order to invest in their “future”, even if for the one-and-done player, that future is already determined and is just on hold.
The ‘One-and-done’ player: The best of the best
I believe that arguments supporting the one-and-done rule shows more cracks and flaws when we illustrate which players are in fact impacted by this rule.
The “one-and-done player” is not every single collegiate basketball prospect. They are the 0.01% of the 0.1%. The LeBron James’ or Kobe Bryant’s of the world. The elite-level prospects who know, without a single doubt in their mind, that they will play in the NBA. Remember, only 44 players in history have ever been drafted straight out of high school. It’s an exclusive club.
As a case study of the one-and-done college player, filmmakers Maura Mandt and Josh Swade, produced the documentary, predictably titled, “One & Done”. The film follows the undisputed number one prospect of the 2016 draft, Ben Simmons (year). He is the 0.01% of the 0.1%.
In the player’s perspective, the film speaks to the concerns that revolve around the problematic rule.
Here’s the trailer:
“the NCAA is messed up… go buy a [number] ‘25’ jersey, go put me on ESPN, go make millions dollars off of one person… I don’t have a voice.”
As the film highlights, there is a certain type of player that embodies the one-and-done athlete.
They are, as Billing (2014) discusses, the elite college basketball player:
- Being forced to enter college even when they have no interest in academics;
- “Performing” the role of student-athlete; or
- Who sees being one-and-done as a status symbol, meaning that remaining in school becomes a point of athletic shame.
As Simmons discusses in the documentary, it’s frustrating to be in the position of the one-and-done player. Mainly because he truly does not care about being an unpaid student-athlete, yet he is forced to be one.
In exact comparison, it’s as if we forced every single high school student, no matter their interest in academics, to attend college; even if they may have an excessively high paying job lined-up, such as being a player in the NBA. It completely removes the individual’s voice and control.
The root of the problem: Money & Free labour
“I’m playing for a coach that’s getting millions from the University. Gets millions from a shoe company. Gets money for appearances. Money for TV. Money for Radio. Off our [the players] sweat equity.”
Jalen Rose, former NBA player and now active commentator and media personality for the NBA, is one of countless in opposition of the one-and-done rule. Though again, the dialogue Rose chooses when discussing the matter is not as much positioned to abolish the rule, but more so, to compensate collegiate players for their “sweat equity”.
Like so many other things in life and business, it’s about the money, and if you know anything about the NCAA, there’s a lot of it.
In 2012-13, the NCAA agreed to a $10.8 billion (yes, billion), 14-year agreement with CBS and Turner broadcasting for media rights to just the Division 1 Men’s Basketball Championship, or ‘March Madness’, as most refer to it as.
On top of this, NCAA member institutions constantly enter into contracts with shoe, apparel and sports drink companies, along with various other corporate entities that pay large amounts in order to advertise within the sporting fields and arenas on college campuses. What’s more, coaches of athletic teams, in addition to their six-figure salaries, sign personal contracts with these same companies in exchange for promising to outfit their players in the shoes and sportswear manufactured by these companies (Haden, 2001).
In stark contrast, the student-athletes who make this financial windfall possible receive absolutely no monetary compensation whatsoever (Haden, 2001).
Therefore, an industry that makes billions in annual revenue is made possible through free labour, on the backs of young, mostly African-American, student-athletes.
Although the issue of student-athlete compensation applies to all players, not just the one-and-done players, it is the stardom of these particular players that create the most equity for the NCAA (Lane, Nagel, & Netz, 2012). It was Andrew Wiggins in 2013/14 as the “Canadian Michael Jordan”, the 2007 debate over one-and-done prospects Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, or just watching, in anticipation, for one-of-a-kind players such as Anthony Davis or Ben Simmons to completely dominate collegiate basketball that generated media and public interest. If the NCAA relies on the free labour of their student-athletes to generate spectacular amounts of revenue, one-and-done players are the prize-winners. The cream of the crop.
To make matters worse for these players, taken from them is a full year from their NBA career. Excluding sponsorship and ad revenue, a rookie contract is $1 million to $4.9 million the first year, while in the NCAA, a rookie contract, again, is a full-ride scholarship and that’s about it.
Issues in race
With all of this said, it becomes impossible to ignore issues of race. Yet, so is the case when talking about nearly every branch of the sports industry. As Tompkins discusses, sport culture is one of the few places in American society where there is a consistent racial discourse; especially when it comes to athletes who “threaten the existence of a commodifiable and pleasurable black athletic body” (2015).
The concept of commodifying the black athlete is amplified when looking at professional basketball, where in the NBA in 2015, a reported 74.4 percent of NBA players were black.
The black athlete makes the popularity of the NBA possible; as it is their physical attributes which makes the spectacle and entertainment of the game so desirable to watch by million upon millions of people. Yet, those who hold true economic control over the entirety of professional basketball, the owners of the 30 teams in the NBA, are nearly all white. Just in 2004, Robert Johnson became the first black majority team owner in NBA history . While 2013 marked the first time in the history of any major sports leagues in the U.S., that there existed two non-white majority owners; Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Bobcats and Vivek Ranadive of the Sacramento Kings.
In the NCAA, the same issues of racial inequality is mirrored, even amplified, since at least NBA players get paid well (though, a fraction of the average NBA team value of $1.25 billion).
Nonetheless, the given racial structure of power, in a way, endorses the advantageous nature over the basketball player, who is typically of a minority racial group. In the scope of the one-and-done player, it isn’t difficult to understand how so many of us have become numb and insensitive to the issues that revolve around how these players are being used as commodities. Having rich white men prosper off of black athletes is a commonality in the world of sports.
It’s difficult to accept the existence of the one-and-done rule. It just doesn’t make sense. Once we remove the illusion of the student-athlete, and identify the NCAA as a powerful business gaining tremendous economic value from these young individuals, it becomes difficult to support such a rule.
Many have rolled the issue of the ‘one-and-done’ rule into the debate of paying or not paying student athletes, which is somewhat troublesome. Nonetheless, I believe the first step towards such a world, where student-athletes are actually paid, would be to abolish the one-and-done rule as a means to promote a freedom in choice, power and opportunity for these future stars.
Billings, A. (2012). Talking around race: Stereotypes, media, and twenty-first century athlete in Wake Forest Journal of Law & Policy, 2. Pp. 199-214. Retrieved from http://heinonline.org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/wfjlapo2&div=13&start_page=199
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