The Opossum-Palooza

It's okay. We don't know what the name means either.

4.25.2006

Because, as always, we should always try to be more like hockey.

Dan Wetzel, columnist for Yahoo! Sports, is one of my favorite sportswriters. Today he had a rather thoughtful piece on the state of college athletics. More specifically, on the question of age restrictions imposed by the NFL and NBA that are inhereintly unfair to star players and encourage corruption like the alleged foul play involving Reggie Bush's parents. His argument is that players like Bush are already worth millions of dollars, but are not allowed any of it lest they lose their "amateur" status, so it makes little sense for athletes of that caliber not to accept shady, under-the-table deals. I can't say I necessarily disagree with him. There's certainly no arguing that a player like Reggie Bush should be allowed to make the jump to the NFL if he so chooses, regardless of whether or not it would be a good decision. As Wetzel says, the freedom to make stupid mistakes and ruin one's career is one of the truths America is founded on, and the age restrictions in the NBA and NFL are patently un-American.

Unfortunately, Wetzel misses one important part.
No one seems to care about the gymnasts, the figure skaters, the singers and actors. No one cares about baseball or hockey players... If a kid mistakenly turns pro too early, it's his loss. If a team mistakenly drafts too young of a prospect, that should be its loss – pro teams make dreadful decisions on college seniors, too.

The added emphasis is my own. Because, unlike football or basketball, the MLB and NHL both have well-established professional minor leagues. As a result, a player who goes pro at age 18 needn't be forced immediately into action against the best players in the world. Obviously, in some cases, not every 18 year old needs to start out in the minors (Exhibit A: Sydney Crosby) but the minor league system in place allows young guys to develop fully before being thrust into the fire. Imagine if Kwame Brown could have spent a few years in a minor league learning the discipline and fundamentals he would need to be succesful in the NBA. But because of the structure of the NBA, Brown was pretty much screwed, and to this day he is not half the player he probably could have been had he spent a year or two in college. The new NBA age restriction is in place specifically to protect guys like him, and the NBADL is a step in the right direction, but I'm not particularly convinced.

The solution? I think the NCAA needs to allow players to declare themselves eligible without losing their eligibility. In fact, they should even be allowed to be drafted, without any loss of eligibility until the player actually signs a paying contract. In which case, a team can draft a player, thus securing the rights to that player, without forcing them to leave college early. As near as I can tell, this sort of thing already happens in the NHL, so I don't see why it would be all that difficult for football or basketball.

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