Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee has sent a letter to both David Stern and NBA Players Association leader Billy Hunter asking them to eliminate the requirement that players be 19 when entering the league. Cohen, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said if the two men didn't start a dialogue on the issue during negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement and hinted that there could be hearings if no action is taken.
In an interview with the New York Times, Cohen spent a lot of time discussing the fact that African-American athletes are the most likely to be affected by the age restrictions.
"There’s something wrong with keeping kids, who are more likely to be African-American than not, from playing professional basketball and football when they can help their families and communities immediately," Cohen said. "They’re forced to go to school when they have no desire or interest in going to school."
There's something wrong with keeping anyone from playing professional basketball and football, not just African-Americans, especially when each league's age rule is really designed to pour money into the pockets of universities and not benefit athletes. Football gets more of a pass on this issue because there aren't many people who believe 18-year-old kids are ready for life in the NFL, and they probably aren't, but that doesn't mean the option shouldn't be available to them.
The NCAA gets cheap labor which generates millions of dollars each year while imposing ludicrous standards that forces players even further under their thumb because they can't earn money doing anything while in college. Cohen argues that the current system is to blame for the O.J. Mayo payola and Derrick Rose SAT scandals. He's right, because neither of them should have been in college in the first place, but he's wrong that anyone in college particularly cares. If they did, they'd actually punish the schools that broke the rules and argue that institutions of higher learning shouldn't be used as incubators for pro athletes who should be free to do what they want.
The freedom, after all, goes both ways. NBA or NFL teams who don't want a kid fresh out of high school would be under no obligation to sign a kid fresh out of high school, just as that player would be under no obligation to declare for the draft instead of going to college. The system works just fine for baseball and hockey, and the only reason it doesn't exist in basketball is because the NBA would rather have the colleges do all the heavy lifting for them.
There's another problem with giving the NBA teams the chance to pass on 18-year-olds, of course. They won't do it, because history has shown that there's nothing that stops such players from being successful in the NBA. No one needs reminder of all the players who have been wildly successful without a stopover in college, least of all the NBA teams who would fall all over themselves to draft any player they now force to go to college.
The problem, at any rate, isn't the existence of the age limit. It has been collectively bargained and a league should have the right to set its own rules and regulations. The problem is that there is no other option in the United States for professional basketball, which means that the NBA's age limit has effectively cut off that pursuit.
Maybe Congress shouldn't be involved, but you can be sure they would be involved if the only widget manufacturer in the world had an arbitrary rule that kept groups of people from working for them. This shouldn't be handled any differently.
Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City and is a contributor to FanHouse.com and ProFootballTalk.com in addition to his duties for NBCNewYork.com.