For decades, the NCAA and NBA have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship, with NCAA men’s basketball serving as a training ground for future NBA players. That’s not to say the NCAA and NBA have improperly conspired. They have simply acted in mutually beneficial ways.
Consider the NCAA and its more than 1,200 member conferences and universities. The NCAA and its members have clearly profited from the marketability of elite hoops. Highly skilled and marketable players help their college teams win games, increase ticket sales and enhance TV ratings. The universities themselves also gain. Winning teams lead to more appealing athletic programs. That dynamic, in turn, aids university admissions officers in recruiting high school students who want to attend colleges that feature “big-time” sports. It also assists university foundation staff in providing alumni with reasons to be proud of their alma mater and to donate back to the school. Schools only need to reimburse the players for their tuition, room, board, books and related costs of education. Economically, it’s an advantageous bargain for the schools.
NBA teams, meanwhile, can watch talented but raw prospects develop in college, sometimes under the tutelage of excellent coaches, without having to finance that development. The NCAA operates as a free minor league system for the NBA, just like it does so for the NFL and other pro leagues. To that point, one of the main reasons why the NBA successfully pushed for an elevated age eligibility rule in 2005 was the belief that the league would gain if 18-year-old players spent a year honing their skills in college. The NBA reached this conclusion even though three of the NBA’s greatest players of all-time, LeBron James, the late Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, joined the league out of high school.
The symbiotic relationship between the NCAA and NBA has changed in recent years. It increasingly appears that the two are competitors, rather than aligned entities, in the pursuit of elite talent. The NBA seems to regard its constantly improving minor league system, the G League, as superior to the NCAA for developing premier talent. This is true even though the G League costs the NBA and its owners money.
A decision on Thursday by Jalen Green—Sports Illustrated All-American's Player of the Year and a contender to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft—only amplifies this point. As first reported by ESPN and as detailed by SI’s Jeremy Woo, Green, a 6-foot-5 wing who played for San Joaquin Memorial High School in Fresno, Calif., has elected to skip college basketball and sign with the G League.
Green does so as part of a new professional pathway program where he’ll earn around $500,000 in wages, incentives and sponsorship opportunities. He’ll obtain other contractual benefits, too, including one-on-one coaching, a full college scholarship and professional skills training. Woo explains that Green and other top recruits who join him (McDonald's All-American Isaiah Todd, who recently decommitted from the University of Michigan, is reportedly next) are expected to play in “an academy-type structure” that would “involve the creation of a new team that would play a unique, travel-heavy schedule and allow elite talent to team up together.”
Green’s decision is the latest threat to the NCAA’s tight control over the market for elite high school basketball players. In recent years, several top recruits have opted to play professionally abroad rather than attend college for a “one-and-done” year. Two expected lottery picks in the 2020 NBA draft, LaMelo Ball and R.J. Hampton, both elected to play in Australia’s National Basketball League last season, while Emmanuel Mudiay and Brandon Jennings took similar same paths years earlier by playing in China and Italy, respectively (2019 first-round pick Darius Bazley also skipped college but did so by signing an “internship” contract with New Balance worth up to $14 million). Not only can those players earn six-figure salaries to play basketball, but they can also hire agents and sign lucrative endorsement deals to supplement their income. Neither a wage nor endorsement opportunities are permissible under current NCAA amateurism rules.
The G League has been lurking in the background of the NCAA. While Article X of the collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and the NBA Players’ Association requires that draft eligible U.S. players be 19 years old plus one year removed from high school, the G League welcomes players right out of high school. Top recruits have generally shied away from that option, in part because skipping college has been viewed as risky and in part because those players might better enhance their brand while playing on nationally televised broadcasts for elite programs like Duke, Kentucky or Arizona. The G League attempted to rectify this impediment by adopting “select contracts.” These contracts are designed for players out of high school and are worth $125,000 for five months of work. Select contracts also offer the player with high-quality health care benefits and access to financial literacy instruction, post-care planning and other practical, basic business lessons. Green will obtain these benefits plus higher pay as part of the new pathway program.
The arrangement Green negotiated with the G League illustrates how a pro league can be nimble and adaptive. The G League saw an opportunity to improve its reputation with the basketball industry and took it. The basketball world is currently in an unsettled space. The coronavirus disease pandemic could threaten fall NCAA sports, particularly if some colleges keep their students off-campus. The pandemic could also make travel to play professionally in Europe, Asia or Australia less possible or less appealing. By signing with the G League, Green, a California resident, can stay in his country and, if the pandemic is under more control this fall, play pro hoops. The G League might therefore be especially attractive at this time. And, by adding talent like Green, G League games will be more attractive to networks, sponsors and fans.
The NCAA, in contrast, is a large and sometimes unwieldy entity. It often struggles with change, in part because its members routinely have divergent interests. Some schools’ athletic programs operate as quasi-pro entities while others are truer to the educational ideals of college students as athletes.
At times, the NCAA has seemed almost like a dinosaur in the realm of players’ rights. It unsuccessfully battled Ed O’Bannon in court for eight years over the unlicensed use of players’ images and likenesses in video games and, now on appeal, remains in a multi-year federal litigation with Shawne Alston over grant-in-aid rules. The NCAA is also trying to lobby Congress to pass legislation that would preempt state-based name, image and likeness legislation. This is particularly true of California’s Fair Pay to Play Act, which will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023. The law makes it illegal for California colleges to deny their student-athletes opportunities to hire agents or license their names, images and likenesses with video game publishers, apparel makers and other companies. The NCAA continues to dodge meaningful change while the G League, where players are in the process of unionizing (another contrast to NCAA student-athletes), deftly evolves with the times.
Some might worry that Green’s decision undermines the importance of college education. As someone who teaches college students and law students, I understand that concern. However, I believe it is misplaced here. Green would have been a “one-and-done” player in college. This means he would have taken classes in the fall semester and then left college after his basketball season ended in February, March or April. A semester and change, while juggling an intense and time-consuming basketball schedule, is of dubious educational value. Plus, Green’s deal with the G League comes with a full scholarship. He could pursue college after his basketball career ends (when he would be older, wiser and presumably more focused on studies than he would at age 18) or enroll at a college that would let him pursue studies part-time, such as by taking courses online or over the summer. College is not a “one-shot” deal in America. People can pursue it at any age.
The NCAA ought to take careful stock of Green’s decision. If the G League is good enough for the nation’s No. 1 recruit, it will certainly be good enough for many other top recruits. While men’s college basketball is in no danger of going away anytime soon—the popularity and commercial success of March Madness alone assures that—a diminished talent pool will ultimately impact quality of play and, perhaps also, attendance at games, TV ratings and merchandise and apparel sales.
Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and the Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.