Adam Silver, College Basketball, and Two Problems With One Solution

On Monday, sports labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA on behalf of college basketball and football players, attempting to remove the market restrictions on college athletes.

As the introduction to the suit explains, “The [NCAA and five major conferences] and their member institutions have lost their way far down the road of commercialism, signing multi-billion dollar contracts wholly disconnected from the interests of ‘student athletes,’ who are barred from receiving the benefits of competitive markets for their services even though their services generate these massive revenues. As a result of these illegal restrictions, market forces have been shoved aside and substantial damages have been inflicted upon a host of college athletes whose services have yielded riches only for others. This class action is necessary to end the NCAA’s unlawful cartel, which is inconsistent with the most fundamental principles of antitrust law.”

That paragraph neatly encapsulates a conversation we’ve been having for a few years now. What’s happening to college athletes is bullshit. We know this.

Maybe it wasn’t bullshit 50 years ago, but now that TV revenue has pushed the whole college sports economy into the billions, refusing to pay the actual labor force has become increasingly reprehensible, and generally untenable, as more and more people slowly connect the dots. The lawsuit from Kessler & Co. is the latest installment in a steady stream of litigation, and none of it will end until the college model gets overhauled forever.

“We’re looking to change the system. That’s the main goal,” Kessler said Monday. “We want the market for players to emerge.”

And that will happen. Maybe it’ll be this lawsuit that does it; maybe it’ll happen in a few years. But this is a problem that’s going to get fixed, because it’s too obvious to ignore for much longer.

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Adam Silver took over as NBA commissioner last month. Even before he officially made the transition, there were reports that instituting an age limit was one of his top priorities. Once he’d taken over officially, he elaborated in an interview with USA Today. He gave a lot of the familiar rationale.

It’ll help teams draft better: “It has been our sense for a long time that our draft would be more competitive if our teams had an opportunity to see these players play an additional year.”

It’ll help players mature: “I’ve been told by many NBA coaches that one of the issues with the younger guys coming into the league is they’ve never had an opportunity to lead.”

With fewer developing young players, the games get better, and everyone makes more money: “We have a better chance to grow the (financial) pie that gets divided 50-50 if we increase the age and create, in essence, a more competitive league.”

I don’t know. There’s plenty of evidence to debunk Silver’s idea that teams are more successful drafting sophomores than drafting freshmen — as Tom Ziller pointed out, look at this year’s sophomore draftees Alex Len, Otto Porter, and Cody Zeller — and there’s not much evidence that suggests a league full of 20-year-old rookies would suddenly give us more competitive basketball.

The age limit will happen, though. It’s inevitable. The longer NBA teams can force superstars to stay in school, the better and more refined those stars will be when they reach the NBA, and thus, the better the return on investment for rookie contracts. Likewise, the NBA’s salary system is loaded with incentives to keep stars with the teams that draft them when they sign their second contract. Generally, it takes seven or eight years before it makes financial sense for a star to leave the team that drafts him.

Wouldn’t it make sense for NBA teams to try to have those seven or eight years include as much of a player’s prime as possible? If they’re drafting star college freshmen to come in and sit on the bench for a year to learn and develop, that’s wasting time and money. Of course NBA teams are pushing for an age limit.

On the other side, active NBA players and the players’ union — whenever they finally elect a new president — don’t have much incentive to fight this. An age limit means more jobs for active players, and more important, the union doesn’t represent the college freshmen this would impact. It’s an easy concession for players to make.

Is it fair to college freshmen who would be lottery picks? Of course not!

A month or two back, I was talking to an NBA player about the age limit, and he said all college freshman should go. First, because staying in school can potentially hurt a top prospect’s stock a lot more than it can help. But also because the sooner a player leaves, the closer he is to that second deal, and the more he can earn over the course of his career. If players are good enough to attract interest from NBA teams, they should be allowed to get on that track.

That’s the biggest problem with an age limit. There’s already plenty of examples that make all this reasoning look ridiculous. The two best players in the world are Kevin Durant (one year in college) and LeBron James (none) — they seem to be doing just fine with leadership. The best young player in basketball spent only a year at Kentucky. Nobody’s convinced by the clichés that Silver’s selling. This rule will screw young, NBA-ready players in a pretty obvious way.

At best, it’s just wildly unfair and every new NCAA tournament is full of guys we all know deserve to be in the NBA. At worst, it all ends with someone like Kessler suing the NBA for antitrust violations, where 30 teams are colluding to deny employment to 18- and 19-year-olds who are obviously capable.

But none of that really matters. When you look at the motivation from owners and the lack of motivation from the NBAPA to fight it, it’s only a matter of time before the NBA pulls this off.

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Meanwhile, it’s March, and the entire country’s about to fall in love with college basketball again. The March Madness broadcast rights are worth $771 million alone every year. That’s before you factor in a merchandise industry that was worth $4.62 billion in 2012. Or events like the Final Four, held in an 80,000-seat stadium where prices on the NCAA-sanctioned secondary ticket market range from $130 to $2,750. Everyone knows NCAA players are getting screwed out of a fortune, but sometimes it’s good to repeat the numbers out loud just to make sure we’re all on the same page.

If you’re one of the people who still thinks college athletes are fairly compensated with a $40,000 scholarship, think of it like this: That’s not even $40,000 they’re getting. That’s a voucher. It costs the schools nothing. It’s like cooking at a restaurant that clears hundreds of millions of dollars every year, and they pay you by giving you free food for the year. It’s total bullshit.

How it gets solved is a whole other question. Kessler’s idea could lead to some interesting scenarios. Remove the artificial cap on what a scholarship can be worth, and let schools compete for labor like they would in any other business. Or, you know, the way schools compete for grad students every single year. One school can offer more money, others can offer better exposure, earlier chances to play, etc.

If we’re talking about basketball, this would change the model at only a fraction of schools, which is just about perfect. Most college basketball players aren’t superstars generating millions of dollars for their school, so most institutions wouldn’t be shelling out $100,000 scholarships. But at schools like Kentucky or Duke? Let them bid on Jabari Parker.

But for our purposes here, this doesn’t even need to be that complicated. The NCAA — and likely the court system — can figure out what model makes the most sense to compensate athletes long term. For now, there’s an obvious solution to help make this all a little less insane.

Just look at March Madness. For three weeks every year, America falls in love with players and teams most people have never heard of, new heroes are born, they’re all amateurs who have been working their entire lives for this stretch, and most of them will fade back into obscurity once this month ends. It’s like the Olympics. And how do Olympians make money every year?

Let these kids sign endorsement deals. Coach K’s been making millions from Nike for the past 20 years — why shouldn’t Jabari Parker? Especially if someone like that is stuck in school for two years.

I used to be deep in the “PAY COLLEGE ATHLETES!!!” camp, but from a practical standpoint, paying 80 football players and 15 basketball players would be tough for all but a few athletic departments, and once you get past the upper crust in football and basketball, college athletes aren’t worth as much as you’d think. People would watch most of these games no matter who’s playing.

Sponsors would allow the handful of exceptions — Jabari, Doug McDermott, Johnny Manziel the past few years — a chance to capitalize on their value without complicating the economics of college sports even a little bit. Maybe you don’t even have to sue Kansas and force it to pay a million dollars to Andrew Wiggins. Let Nike or Adidas pay him instead.

That isn’t just a hypothetical. Adidas was reportedly interested in signing Wiggins to a $180 million shoe deal before this season started. It’s an extreme example, but the point holds regardless. As unfair as it may be to keep basketball’s biggest superstars from starting their rookie contracts at 19, if they’re making even 1 percent of that Wiggins deal in the meantime, suddenly it’s not such a bad deal.

I’d love for colleges to compete on an open market for athletes one day, but for right now, the ban on endorsements is the most inexplicable rule the NCAA has left. And it’s also the easiest to change. All it takes is someone with enough power to push the association in the right direction.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver Press Conference

At the end of his lengthy answer about about the age limit, Silver added a wrinkle:

Let me just throw in that at the same time, I think maybe, just to broaden my horizons a little bit, I’m trying to look at it not just from the perspective of the NBA. I believe strong college basketball is also beneficial to the NBA and to the game generally. So even if it’s not terrible for the NBA right now, at least talking to a lot of my college coaching friends and college (athletic director) friends, their view is (that) one and done is a disaster. I think this is one of these issues that the larger basketball community needs to come together and address.

And here’s my hope as a basketball fan: Maybe Silver’s telling the truth. Maybe he really does care about the basketball community in general, and this rhetoric isn’t just a Trojan horse while he does the owners’ bidding. You know, exactly the way David Stern did things for the last 10 years.

For the NBA players’ part, NBAPA vice-president Ron Klempner told the Sports Business Journal this week, “Any discussions about the NBA age minimums would have to be conditioned on the NCAA’s agreement to lift various restrictions, and make whatever other changes our players feel necessary to bring about a fair result.”

This is the one way that an age limit might make sense.

You can’t convince me that keeping kids in school would actually help teams draft smarter, or make the league that much more competitive — there will always be stupid teams — and while an extra year of maturity helps some kids, there are plenty of others who would be just fine. But it benefits enough billionaires that you can be pretty sure raising the age limit is happening regardless.

The key is making it happen the right way. The perpetually fractured NBAPA wouldn’t be able to convince the NCAA to do anything, but the NBA might. Silver’s got leverage with the NCAA right now. He can offer it another year of superstars. The question is whether he demands anything in return.

You can’t push for an age limit without also pushing the NCAA to come up with a fairer system. This doesn’t mean Silver has to get out on the front lines with Jeffrey Kessler and join the suit against the NCAA — he just has to push his “college coaching friends and college (athletic director) friends” for simple solutions. Approach the decision-makers and offer a raised age limit in exchange for a system that makes sense. End the ban on endorsements, stop harassing kids over petty violations, find a way to regulate agents. If Silver’s looking at basketball from 360 degrees here, then go investigate everything.

I wouldn’t be writing any of this if I didn’t have faith that Silver actually believes what he’s saying when he talks about a responsibility to basketball. He doesn’t want to be David Stern — he wants to think outside the box, he wants to make the entire sport better. This is his chance to convince us he’s serious.

The NCAA’s never been more vulnerable, and administrators need a way to save face here. There are new lawsuits every other month, and Silver’s got the chance to get the age limit he wants, and while forcing the compromise college sports needs.

It won’t be easy, it won’t be simple, it might take a few years. But it would be a creative solution to old problems, with legitimately groundbreaking implications for how basketball in America works. And isn’t that everything Silver wants his NBA to be about?

Filed Under: NBA, Andrew Sharp, Adam Silver, Andrew Wiggins, College Basketball

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Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp