Let’s be perfectly clear: There’s no one-step solution to college basketball’s black-market problem. For anyone with a finger on the pulse of the sport and how recruiting works, the FBI’s findings last week weren’t especially surprising—the money is there for almost anyone who can provide value. It is a system that has long asked to be gamed, born out of the NCAA’s failure to compensate basketball players (and student-athletes at large) what they’re worth. It has been made worse by the NBA’s age limit that locks would-be pros into a year of college.
As it stands, the much-discussed ‘one-and-done’ rule isn’t working for anyone. Sure, college is generally a great experience for teenagers, but the notion that all players benefit from a year of taking classes is farcical. The NCAA’s fundamental problems have been dissected many times before, but as the sport tries to right itself with some help from law enforcement, an assist from the NBA could go a long way. Adam Silver has expressed interest in raising the minimum age from 19 to 20, but dropping it in the other direction would serve the best interests of the players and could help clean up college hoops in the process.
It’s pretty clear that the current age minimum hurts the top draft-bound prospects every year from a financial standpoint. They’re prevented from profiting off their professional-caliber skills for a season, and many come from backgrounds where those earnings can help. As the general public knows now, that creates incentives for recruits to take handouts that coaches and sneaker companies are eager to give as a long-term investment. Every year, these kids are the biggest fish with the greatest earning potential. If they’re going to seek the payments no matter what, they should be able to do it legally.
So drop the age limit back to 18 and let agents recruit and sign high school seniors. Make hiring representation a binding commitment to enter the upcoming draft. Let NBA scouts back into high school gyms, and allow them to give feedback that might help prospects on the fence. Those who go undrafted can play in the G-League and work upward.
Ignore the company line that the one-and-done rule provides players with necessary maturity and preparation: The NBA is better equipped to help teenagers succeed than ever before. The league trumpets the growth of its developmental league and the value of its Rookie Transition Program to the young men who join its ranks every year. If the league doubles down on its investment in players, it can be part of the solution. Worrying about players’ readiness but rejecting a chance to work with them hands-on is hypocrisy.
Maybe the college game loses some star power under these rules, or maybe teams will focus on recruiting players they can keep and develop for multiple seasons, the sort of four-year rarities that college hoops purists love to put on a pedestal. For all the complaints about mass transferring and roster turnover, encouraging continuity will help college-bound recruits make better choices and improve the NCAA’s product over time, too. It would be much easier for a prospect to project his playing time at a school he’s considering if he had a clearer picture of which players are coming back at his position.
Changing the age limit would direct a large chunk of the middlemen and agents out for profit toward the talented players who should be able to turn pro immediately and make that money anyway. It’s not a perfect solution—no matter what the FBI turns up in its investigation, ambitious coaches and deep-pocketed companies will simply learn to operate in a thinner market. This way, at least the players and their families are equipped with more of a career choice. While nobody’s naïve enough to think an NBA rule tweak can save college hoops from itself, a small push from the professional ranks sure wouldn’t hurt. If the early findings are any indication, it can’t get worse, right?