Michael McCann at Sports Law Blog has an interesting discussion of the fate of Bill Walker, the talented Kansas State freshman who recently tore his ACL, costing him the 2006-07 season. As McCann explains, Walker was a potential test case for the NBA's new age limit and this injury casts doubt on what future he might have in the NBA.
The whole post is worth reading, but especially worthwhile are some of the larger implications McCann draws from Walker's circumstances:
"We might also consider the social policy implications of Walker's plight. Here we have a 19-year-old man who has suffered a terrible injury that threatens what appears to be his most marketable and cherished skill: the ability to excel at basketball. Walker has presumably invested much of his life in honing that skill, probably at the expense of honing other talents and perhaps those skills that are scholastically-related. I have never met him, but like Arthur Agee and William Gates in the extraordinary documentary Hoop Dreams (1994), he has probably been "encouraged" by coaches and sneaker representatives and other self-interested (selfish?) actors to focus on basketball. The advice seemed to be working. But what happens if his basketball career is now over, or if he is no longer the next Vince Carter? Will those same people care about him? If not, who will?
That point lends itself to another point that is closer to the law: consider the human costs of an age-eligibility rule. If Walker had suffered the exact same injury while playing for an NBA team, he would likely have millions of guaranteed dollars coming his way under an existing contract. I know, money doesn't make one whole (despite what we tell our students in torts), but it certainly makes one better off--especially when one comes from financially-disadvantaged circumstances, as do many premier basketball players, and especially when one has invested so much of his learning time to a sport rather than to scholastics or other endeavors. I talked about these points in my posts Not Being Randy Livingston: The Jonathan Bender Story and The Power of Situation: Joakim Noah's Decision to Stay at Florida.
What will be Walker's life story if, because of this injury, he never earns a dime playing basketball? Should we, as sports fans, bear responsibility in making sure that he does alright, or is it okay that we will simply forget about him?
The comments section raises some interesting points in response to McCann, and those are worth reading as well. An additional point I would add is whether the new NBA policy is really serving any purpose other than to postpone some kids' entry into the NBA by a year. In other words, is Bill Walker really at Kansas State to receive an education? Is he (or fill in your preferred blue chip high school player) going to mature so much in one year as to that much better prepared to face the on and off-court rigors of NBA life? And, will postponing his eligibility for a year materially affect the talent or character level of the NBA? I ask these questions, because Stern's insistence on the new policy is based on the presumption that the likely answer to all of of the above questions is yes. Needless to say, I am skeptical of that presumption.
For those of you who haven't been following, the most highly regarded high school player in the country this year is OJ Mayo. Mayo is a 6' 5" shooting guard from West Virginia whose talents have been receiving attention since he was in the sixth grade, according to Mayo's already substantial Wikipedia page.
Mayo would certainly have made himself eligible for the 2007 draft prior to the new rule. Instead, he must find a college for a year. According to Pete Thamel, writing in the New Yorl Times in late December, Mayo sought a college that met certain criteria:
"In Mayo's case, he made sure to find a place that could help him the most. U.S.C. did not recruit him last year; instead, he called Floyd, who said he was nearly speechless.
College coaches typically spend hours swooning over talented prospects like Mayo. But in this case, Mayo had a shopping list for his one-year college stopover. Mayo told Floyd he wanted to play for someone with N.B.A. coaching experience, which Floyd had with Chicago and New Orleans. Mayo also wanted to put his stamp on a program, like Patrick Ewing did at Georgetown in the 1980s, not perpetuate the established legacy of a perennial basketball powerhouse like U.C.L.A. or Connecticut.
He also wanted the marketing benefits of being in Los Angeles, much as quarterback Matt Leinart and running back Reggie Bush tapped before him in the Trojans' football program."
It's striking that Mayo isn't even pretending that he's at USC for an education. Neither is his coach:
"''We've got a brand new arena and we're going to sell a lot of seats and give our program a chance to make the N.C.A.A. tournament,'' Coach Tim Floyd said. ''He's attached his name to our program, and every kid in the country knows who he is.''
I'm not picking on Floyd here. Thamel makes clear how coaches and administrators in general view the "one-and-dones':
"Coaches and administrators say the rule change allows colleges to build stronger teams and sell more tickets while giving the N.B.A. a better chance to evaluate young players."
It's clear what the benefit to the bottom line of the universities is. And, there's certainly no selflessness on Stern's part in having pushed for the age change. If anything, it means that more players who might fall through the cracks of college and the new rule will spend time in the NBA development league (which, in an act of rank hypocrisy, reduced its age limit from 19 to 18 earlier this year). But, the benefit to the young men whose career paths are affected by this rule is less clear.
Thamel's article quotes Rick Barnes, the Texas coach who is currently benefitting from the supreme talents of his own likely one-and-done, Kevin Durant:
"'I don't know anyone that's been hurt by a year of college."
Except maybe Bill Walker.
Note: If you're interested, I've written a couple of times before about NBA age limits, here and here.