A $125,000 Step in the Right Direction for Basketball

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A hundred twenty-five thousand bucks a year.

As Dick Vitale might put it, Now we’re talkin’, baby!

I’m referring to the salary the National Basketball Association’s minor league affiliate, the G League, plans to offer, starting in 2019, to top high school prospects who want to turn pro immediately instead of spending time playing college basketball first.

The news was announced Thursday, and I’m here to tell you that it’s a huge step forward. Right now, if you want to get to the NBA, you have very few options that don’t include at least a year in college, whether you want to go or not. That’s because in 2005, NBA owners, tired of drafting high school players who weren’t ready for the professional game — many of whom ultimately washed out — cut a deal with the players’ union under which players had to be at least 19, and a year removed from high school, to enter the draft.

The unanticipated consequence was the “one-and-done” freshmen who now dominate college basketball. It is a cynical, corrosive practice: Coaches recruit the best players — usually black teenagers whose families have little money — knowing they have no interest in college and will drop out the minute they can. Even coaches who initially resisted one-and-done players eventually succumbed; it was the only way to keep winning (and holding onto their multi-million-dollar salaries).

The National Collegiate Athletic Association could have solved this problem by abandoning its ridiculous adherence to “amateurism” and paying the players. Instead, NCAA President Mark Emmert whined about one-and-done players while throwing up his hands. The NBA, meanwhile, was perfectly happy with the arrangement. It meant they could evaluate potential draft picks for at least one season against stiffer competition, while letting the NCAA and the college athletic conferences market the players — so they walked into the NBA as stars fans wanted to watch.

What changed were two things. First was the growing realization that college basketball players were being exploited by a system in which everyone seemed to get rich except them. The NCAA’s core claim is that a college education is so valuable it dwarfs any money a college athlete might get. But the one-and-dones have zero interest in a college education. They want to make money, for themselves and their family, as soon as possible. Any other 18-year-old high school graduate can take any job she or he can find — and get paid for it. The idea that 18-year-old college basketball players can’t has come to be seen as ridiculous.

Second, both the NBA and the NBA players’ union have different leaders than in 2005. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Michele Roberts , the executive director of the players’ union, are both on record opposing the 19-year-old minimum age for draft eligibility; when the next collective bargaining agreement is negotiated in 2021, it will almost surely be abandoned.

In the meantime, however, Silver and G League President Malcolm Turner have taken steps to improve the minor league — each of the 27 teams is now affiliated with an NBA team, and the marketing is better. But the pay has been so low — topping out at about $35,000 — that basketball players haven’t been willing to jump to the G League from high school. (That’s in no small part, it turns out, because many of the best recruits or their parents already make more than that thanks to under-the-table payments from coaches or shoe company representatives.)

The decision to pay $125,000 to top prospects will absolutely draw big-time high school players to the G League. My personal view is that a free-market negotiation over salaries would be preferable, but $125,000 is real money — enough for a player to put some in his pocket and sent some to his family. In addition, the G League plans to offer life-skills classes, mentoring, and financial planning, something colleges ought to do but can’t be bothered.

Lots of questions remain, many of which are laid out in this ESPN account of the new G League plan. Which high school players will qualify for the new six-figure salary? Will non-American high school athletes be eligible? Will there be friction between the highly paid teenagers and the underpaid older players who have been in the G League for years? And so on.

My question is different. If the G League succeeds in attracting many of the best high school players, what will it mean for college basketball? One likelihood is that the quality of play, which has already declined with the advent of the one-and-done, will deteriorate further. Another possibility is that the NCAA, realizing that its marquee sport is losing some of its appeal, might finally succumb to reality and start allowing schools to pay the players.

Well, a guy can dream, can’t he?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or 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. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.