After a game in Toronto last week, Indiana Pacers all-star forward Jermaine O’Neal was asked a blissfully simple question about NBA Commissioner David Stern’s desire to see players banned from the NBA before their 20th birthday. A Canadian reporter queried, "Is it because you guys are Black that the league is trying to put an age limit on the draft?" O’Neal, maybe because he was feeling the cool breezes of social democracy, responded freely, without a censor, without a filter, and without approval from his sneaker company.
He said, "In the last two years, the rookie of the year has a been a high school player. There were seven high school players in the All-Star game, so why we even talking an age limit? As a black guy, you kind of think that’s the reason why it’s coming up. You don’t hear about it in baseball or hockey. To say you have to be 20, 21 to get in the league, it’s unconstitutional. If I can go to the U.S. army and fight the war at 18, why can’t you play basketball for 48 minutes?” Now the harpies of sports radio have descended upon O’Neal like he tipped over the Pope’s coffin in Vatican City. He has been called stupid. He has been told to "just shut up." He has basically been treated like Joseph Massad at a JDL meeting. All of this because he spoke a truth that made much of the US sports media squirm.
But it was a question that needed to be asked. 76% of NBA players are African-American. But the percentage of players who came right out of High School that are Black is more like 99.9% (the one exception ever: Seattle’s Rob Swift.)
In other words, a policy is being proposed that will hurt the ability of young Black men to make a living. Is this racist? There is no similar clamor for baseball, soccer or hockey leagues to stop drafting high schoolers. The army sure isn’t shutting down their High School recruitment booths around the country. No age restrictions are coming down the pike to prevent Dakota Fanning from acting or Ashlee Simpson from singing (although legislation on the latter is a necessity). And yet the NBA calls for change.
The arguments in defense of Stern’s proposal have more holes than a Dunkin Donuts. Steve Kerr wrote, "So why is David Stern interested in an age limit? To improve the NBA’s product; a better product on and off the court." A better product "on and off the court"? Would the league be a better product without instant high school to pro sensations LeBron James and Amare Stoudamire? Even considering players who have taken longer to develop like O’Neal himself or Tracy McGrady, it’s the team’s decision to draft "potential" over immediate dividends, and the player’s right at 18 to try and make a living.
But the proof that the product isn’t damaged is in the ticket sales. The league is in an economic renaissance largely on the strength of these very straight outta high school players. As O’Neal said, "The product and economic reasons can’t be the reason, because the league is doing well and the prime faces of the NBA are of high-school players. So why are they trying to change that? It doesn’t make sense to me."
The other Stern argument is that players who come straight out of high school are "unprepared" and they need "the guidance and discipline" of college life to ready them for the NBA. Anyone thinks the life of a college athlete breeds "discipline" has turned a blind eye to the University of Colorado’s "hooker slush fund" program or Maurice Clarett’s exposure of Ohio State as a place where apple cheeked boosters stuff $100 bills in your pocket for playing x-box with their kids.
But even beyond this ridiculous view of college as a Buddhist Temple of austere discipline, there is a paternalism to this statement that these young Black men need a father figure (often white father figure) to set them on the right track. As one columnist wrote in defense of raising the age limit, "Perhaps Kobe Bryant would have dealt with adversity in a more positive manner had he spent a season or two playing for Mike Kryzwezski at Duke." It strains credulity that a season or two amongst the preppy wealth of Cameron Crazies, and some fatherly pats on the head from St. Assisi himself, Coach K, would have altered his entire path. It’s Duke, not Lourdes.
The fact is that O’Neal is right. There is no economic reason, no reason with regard to the quality of play, and no reason with regard to the stunting of talent, which justifies Stern’s move. That leaves race. Stern is simply expressing in policy, the long held concerns by NBA executives that a league whose base of talent are America’s bogeyman, the YBT (Young Black Teenager) is unsustainable. In other words, as Steve Kerr alluded to, the concerns are "off the court": image, marketability, and concerns that the league is too "hip-hop."
As Brian Burwell wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "[NBA marketing people] thought they were getting Will Smith and LL Cool J. But now they’ve discovered the dark side of hip-hop has also infiltrated their game, with its ëbling-bling’ ostentation, its unrepentant I-gotta-get-paid ruthlessness, its unregulated culture of posses, and the constant underlying threat of violence." The Tampa Bay Tribune wrote a whole piece about how "hip hop" was "alienating" older fans. All of this is ideological cover for racism and discomfort with seeing young Black men fronting a billion dollar enterprise. The message is that young Black men are good enough to die in Iraq, but not good enough to play ball. This – no matter how you dress it up – is racism, and far from stupid, O’Neal has every right to raise this and be heard.
As journalist Scoop Jackson wrote, "Let’s define stupid. Stupid is Barry Bonds still working out with Greg Anderson. Stupid is Mike Tyson still fighting for a title shot. Stupid is the Lakers not getting at least one All-Star in return for Shaq. An NBA superstar finding something racially motivated when the principals involved are specifically of one race? That’s not stupid. That’s conscious."
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" will be in stores in June 2005. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.