If NCAA Won’t Pay Top High School Players, the NBA Will


(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Jalen Green is what they call a five-star basketball recruit. The 6-foot-6 native of Fresno, California, was rated the best shooting guard in the country coming out of high school this year, and all the big-time basketball schools wanted him. He had narrowed his choices to Auburn University and the University of Memphis.

But on Thursday, he made a different decision: He decided to go pro. No, he’s not entering the National Basketball Association’s draft; under the collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the players’ union, high school players have to wait a year before they are eligible.

Instead, he agreed to join the G League, the NBA’s minor league, which is stocked mostly with players who aren’t quite good enough to play in the NBA but might be someday. To lure talented players like Green — who would ordinarily spend a year playing in college before declaring for the draft — the NBA did something interesting: It established a new elite G League team that will be set apart from the rest of the league.

It will emphasize training and development, with several veterans on the roster who can mentor players just out of high school. It won’t play a regular G League schedule but compete against top international junior squads and other comparable teams. It’s giving scholarships for athletes who want to get a college education. Best of all, it will pay real money, up to $500,000, more than three times what the G League has paid similar players in the past. Green may be the first player to sign with the elite G League team, but with that kind of money available, he certainly won’t be the last.

When I first read the news, I assumed the timing had something to do with the coronavirus. (After all, isn’t everything connected to the virus?) But after poking around a little, I discovered that it went back to 2018, when a special National Collegiate Athletic Association committee headed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proposed a series of reforms. One called for the elimination of the “one-and-done” rule that prevents players from jumping directly from high school to the NBA.

Unfortunately for the NCAA, that rule is in the purview of the NBA and its players’ union, and neither the owners nor the union are in any great rush to get rid of it. The owners don’t want to offer millions of dollars to players who have faced only high school competition and may take years to develop; the players don’t want to lose their jobs to someone just out of high school.

So what the NBA has done instead is tell the NCAA, “We’re going to take those pesky one-and-done players off your hands.” That is to say: We’ll take your most talented, most marketable, most exciting recruits, pay them the kind of money you won’t because of your dumb amateurism rules, sign a TV contract with ESPN and get these players ready for the NBA. As the proverb goes: “Be careful what you wish for.”

I could easily see this new G League concept attracting not just a small handful of the best players, but dozens of them — enough to form two teams, or three or four. I could see those players generating TV ratings as good or better than college games. I could see fans following them as avidly as they followed, say, Zion Williamson during his one year at Duke University.

I’m sure the NCAA can see the same thing. The question is: How will it react? Right now, the NCAA is grappling with the issue of granting players the rights to their name, image and likeness — an issue that Americans overwhelmingly support and that state legislatures are passing laws in favor of. It just can’t bring itself to let the free market have its way, not when it comes to players.

(A side note: A few years ago, the NCAA stopped licensing Electronic Arts’s college basketball and football video games. With the March Madness tournament canceled and a decent chance that next season’s college football season will be canceled as well, the NCAA would stoke interest in the college game by allowing players to sell their image rights to Electronic Arts so that it could resume the video games. But that would require the NCAA to, well, let players own the rights to their own name, image and likeness.)

If the NCAA continues to cling to amateurism, there is a real chance that college basketball will wind up a diminished product, with all the good young players going to the G League instead. Fans will stop watching, and the annual ritual of filling out March Madness brackets will die.

The coronavirus crisis has had a crushing effect on college sports, costing schools millions of dollars. So maybe it’s not the best time to be talking about finally paying the players. But college basketball, for the first time, is facing serious competition from a well-funded source. If the NCAA stands pat, March Madness could be a thing of the past.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. His latest project is the Bloomberg-Wondery podcast "The Shrink Next Door."

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