How the NBA’s minimum-age rule emboldens college basketball crooks

The FBI has cracked open a massive investigation into several college basketball programs, the No. 2 sneaker company in the nation, and a number of agents and managers. The web of alleged crimes is messy, but at its core the story is simple: The adults involved are conspiring to illegally make money off teenage athletes.

There are a slew of questions that sprout from this central tenet. Perhaps the most important is why the adults are in position to profit off the whims of the teenage athletes in the first place.

Thankfully, this question is easy to answer: It’s because the NCAA won’t allow its most marketable athletes to profit off themselves while maintaining eligibility. These athletes’ work product — playing and marketing basketball — is worth a lot, upwards of $100,000 per player at the top end, per research. Since NCAA regulations prohibit them from openly collecting beyond scholarships and minor stipends, there is a vacuum into which all these folks getting arrested step.

The obvious follow-on question: Why don’t these highly valuable-but-unpaid athletes just go pro?

That would be because of the NBA’s age minimum.

Back in 2005, the NBA players’ union agreed to the league’s request to establish a rule preventing players from jumping to the NBA directly out of high school. Players would now have to spend one year after their high school graduation in college, in the D-League (now the G League), overseas, or working out on their own. International prospects could not declare for the draft unless they were turning 19 years old in that year. The preps-to-pros era ended abruptly, giving way to the one-and-done era.

Crooks existed in college basketball before the age minimum, and they only got more powerful once the rule came into effect. Consider the types of players who went right to the pros. You had your undeniable talents like LeBron James and Dwight Howard. But beyond the lottery picks you had plenty of four-star recruits who chose the pros not because they were guaranteed huge immediate contracts or because it was the best developmental choice. Some of them just couldn’t get eligible for college due to test scores or GPA requirements. College really doesn’t make sense for some of them. Becoming a second-round NBA pick with an unguaranteed contract offered a more reasonable path than, say, playing at junior college and transferring to a Division I program.

The NBA age minimum closed that path. The D-League has never been seen by prospective preps-to-pros candidates as a reasonable path, for whatever reason. The international option has been riddled with issues. Sitting out organized basketball for a year requires capital to pay a trainer and manager. So these players ended up going with the college cabal.

Getting a top prospect is worth lots of money for college programs. Big program college basketball coaches are very well paid. Landing a top draft prospect as a client is worth lots of money for player agents and management companies. Sneaker companies are locked in a war for the next zeitgeist in basketball. Honestly, it’s only natural for deals to be cut in such an environment. Given the NCAA’s absurd restrictions on player compensation, it’s only natural that their families might try to get in on the deals as well, as apparently happened with Louisville.

Once you insert all of the brightest young basketball stars back into this mix, as the NBA age minimum did in 2005, you have a recipe for mayhem. And that’s exactly what the FBI has found.

The NBA finally appears to be reconsidering its stance on the age minimum after failing to convince the players’ union to extend it an additional year. Abolishing the age minimum in favor of a system that allowed teenaged prospects to get paid for their work while developing in the G League would not scrub college basketball clean. Only college basketball can fix itself, and that almost certainly begins with paying the players, or at least allowing them to profit off their own work through marketing and licensing deals.

That will not likely happen anytime soon. But the NBA can do its part to extricate itself, its future stars, and its agents from the underbelly of amateur basketball by reopening the legitimate path to high-level, domestic professional basketball for 18-year-olds. Until the age minimum is rescinded, the NBA is complicit in creating the environment in which college basketball crooks operate.

Whether the NBA has a moral obligation to allow its G League to become a true professional replacement for the NCAA’s sham amateur system is a question for another time. At the very least, the age minimum must go.