Former player and current TV analyst Steve Kerr propose raising the NBA minimum age from 19 to 20 in a recent Grantland column. His argument is simple. The move makes business sense for the NBA by reducing financial and interpersonal/team costs associated with including very young players. He sums up by saying:
If this were about legality or fairness, you might have a case. But it's really about business. The National Basketball Association is a multi-billion-dollar industry that depends on ticket sales, sponsorships, corporate dollars, and media contracts to operate successfully. If the league believes one rule tweak — whatever it is — would improve its product and make it more efficient, then it should be allowed to make that business decision.
Of course, as he discusses, such an age increase would require an amendment to the collective bargaining agreement. Given that veteran players tend to like raising entry barriers, except for a few whose consciences push them to voice concerns for yet-to-be players, amending the CBA seems a small step.
Given Kerr's NBA perspective and taking the legal situation as given, it's hard to argue with him. Nonetheless, my inner legal philosopher consistently stumbles at the fact that statutory labor law trumps constitutional protections against age discrimination. As a result, a conspiracy between a union and league permits a league to do what it could not by itself -- but that's the legal standing as reconfirmed in the Maurice Clarett case (See Skip's post).
What if the NBA adopted an MLB-style setup where high school seniors are draft-eligible, but players at 4-year colleges do not qualify until after their junior year? This system works very well for baseball, in part, because of the well-developed minor league system and the relatively long period needed to develop into a major league player. The NBA situation differs because the minor development league in the U.S. offers fewer opportunities. In addition, the length of time needed for an 18-year-old, at least among the very best, to develop into an NBA-caliber player is much shorter, leading to some of the maturity and chemistry problems that Kerr discusses.
Even though it is beyond Kerr's viewpoint, minimum age choices by the NBA spillover into effects for college basketball (one could debate whether this rises to an "externality" in a strict econ sense or not). The current setup leads to a "one and done," highly mercenary system for the top players, as exemplified by the UK Wildcats this season. A 20-year-old rule would keep more players around for their sophomore year -- something many college fans would probably like. From a player/societal perspective, the downside to either age is that it forces many developing players to choose an option that they would not otherwise. A 20-year-old rule forces more player years for athletes who don't want to be at a university. That's one of the benefits of the MLB system -- it affords 18-year-olds the choice. However, the relatively small number of development spots in basketball vis-a-vis baseball would likely limit the practical options for many young players. On the flip side, such a system might place a greater incentive on the NBA to foster the growth of development leagues rather than relying on universities as their de facto development league.
As a side note, the NCAA's ridiculous "dumb jock?" campaign during the basketball tournament was laughable. While there are many knowledgeable NCAA athletes, there are plenty of athletes in basketball and football who have no interest in academics.