By Andrew Knox on February 26, 2013

On February 12, Kentucky basketball player Nerlens Noel collided with the base of a basketball hoop in a game against Florida, tearing his ACL and ending his season.  While the timetable for recovery can be anywhere from six months to a year, Noel’s draft stock could suffer an unrecoverable injury.  The NBA uses a rookie pay scale in which salary decreases the later a player is drafted.  For example, if a player drops from first overall to tenth overall, his salary would drop by nearly $8 million. [1]  Naturally, this raises questions of why a player deemed talented enough to jump from high school to NBA was spending a year playing at the collegiate level at all.  Noel’s case reinvigorates the long-standing debate over the NBA’s “one and done” rule.

The one and done rule is the term for the age and amateur experience requirements contained in the NBA Players Association Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”).  Technically, the rule does not require that a player go to college at all.  However, the rule that determines a player’s eligibility is most easily satisfied when the player is or will be nineteen years old in the year of the draft, at least one NBA season has elapsed since the year of his high school class’ graduation, and the player declares himself an early entry. [2]  During the NBA season that players must sit out, the majority matriculate and play for a college team.  With the exception of foreign-born players, this is widely understood to be the easiest path to an NBA career.

In 2004, the Second Circuit, addressing whether age and amateur experience requirements are permissible for National Football League draft prospects, found that a players association could limit draft eligibility in a collective bargaining agreement. [3] The court held that: “[b]ecause the NFL players have unionized and have selected the NFLPA as its exclusive bargaining representative, labor law prohibits [the player] from negotiating directly the terms and conditions of his employment with any NFL club. . . . The terms and conditions of [the player’s] employment are instead committed to the collective bargaining table and are reserved to the NFL and the players union’s selected representative to negotiate.” [4]

Despite the legality of the one and done rule, it provides little or no benefit to the players themselves.  Ideally, such a rule could benefit players.  If the players are practically required to attend college, major universities would line up with scholarships, giving free education to those that otherwise might not have such an opportunity.  However, the players themselves often see the college stage as a mandatory stepping stone to an NBA career, some paying little importance to their studies and student-athlete eligibility requirements.  A freshman can pass only two classes in the fall and remain eligible long enough to satisfy the one and done rule. [5]

While many players do take advantage of the opportunity to attend college, some stop attending classes altogether in the spring when their academic eligibility requirements can no longer catch up to them and prevent them from playing. [6]   The 2009-2010 Kentucky team that advanced to the Elite Eight had two freshmen that were not eligible after spring semester, both escaping an NCAA eligibility violation by going to the NBA. [7]

While the players risk injuring their bodies and paydays, the NCAA, the universities, and the NBA all benefit greatly.  The increase in NBA-caliber talent playing for college programs has increased the appeal to the college game as a whole, increasing viewers, profit from television contracts, and NCAA March Madness ticket sales.  While the increase can damper a university’s academic atmosphere, the universities themselves likewise see an increase in revenue from ticketing and merchandise.  The NBA teams are granted an additional year to watch a player develop, risk free, with no financial commitment to the player.  If a player’s draft stock drops because he suffered an injury playing somewhere he didn’t want to be, a team set on the player can pay him less than they would have had to had he stayed healthy.  The injury can create the appearance of risk in drafting a player, which can drop the player’s draft position and salary, thus actually increasing his value to NBA teams.

NCAA student-athletes can take out insurance policies to protect themselves should they be injured. [8]   The NCAA’s basic policy only covers career-ending injuries, however.  Private, loss-of-value insurance that would apply if a player’s draft stock and salary dropped is available but expensive. [9]   However, in accepting a loan to purchase such a plan a player would be committing an NCAA infraction.  A third option is the NCAA’s Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Program (“ESDI”).  However, the ESDI program, for which a student-athlete can permissibly take a loan to purchase, only provides up to $5 million in coverage. [10]

The initial reaction is that Noel’s stock won’t drop significantly, but many NBA General Managers and scouts had reservations about drafting him first overall. [11]   As one observed, “You’re going to have to be patient with him anyway.  He moves from being a risky No. 1 pick, to a potential value pick, like Andre Drummond, a little bit later in the lottery.” [12] Regardless of where in the first round he is drafted, Noel’s case is but the 2013 edition of a problem that has happened to countless players since the one and done rule was installed.  The current CBA runs through 2021 with an option to termination in 2016 if certain requirements are not met.  Until the draft eligibility requirements are changed, more and more NBA-caliber players like Noel will risk their health, careers, and earnings as the NBA and NCAA benefit without risk.

As Pat Forde observed, “Noel may have gotten hurt in 2013 no matter where he was playing, but at least he would be under contract and well-compensated by whatever NBA team would have drafted him in the first round last June.  Instead, he wound up playing for scholarship money at Kentucky.  And while that is nothing to sneeze at, Noel’s presence on campus represents restraint of trade and a bastardization of what college is supposed to be.  He wants to be a pro basketball player.  Let him be a pro basketball player without the charade of college delaying it.” [13]   Maybe if enough once-injured players are in the league when the next CBA is negotiated, would be one and dones won’t have to risk a year in college.

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[1]See David Leon Moore, What Happens Now for Nerlens Noel, Kentucky After Unlucky Twist?, USA Today (Feb. 14, 2013), http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaab/2013/02/14/what-happens-now-for-nerlens-noel-kentucky-after-unlucky-twist/1918089/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+UsatodaycomCollegeMensBasketball-TopStories+%28Sports+-+College+Men%27s+Basketball+-+Top+Stories%29.
[2] See Collective Bargaining Agreement, art. X, §1, Player Eligibility and NBA Draft, Nat’l Basketball Players Ass’n, http://www.nbpa.org/sites/nbpa.org/files/ARTICLE%20X.pdf (last visited Feb. 24, 2013).
[3] See Clarett v. Nat’l Football League, 369 F.3d 124 (2d Cir. 2004).
[4] Id. at 138-39.
[5] See Andy Katz, One-and-Dones Have Low Academic Requirements Too, ESPN (May 13, 2008), http://sports.espn.go.com/ncb/columns/story?columnist=katz_andy&id=3393470.
[6] Id.
[7] See 
Eamonn BrennanUK’s Grades Slip in Calipari’s First Year, ESPN (May 3, 2010), http://espn.go.com/blog/collegebasketballnation/post/_/id/11209/uks-grades-slip-in-caliparis-first-year.
[8] Zach Schonbrun, Injury Raises Questions About Insurance for College Stars, N.Y. Times (Feb. 14, 2013), http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/15/sports/ncaabasketball/injury-to-nerlens-noel-raises-questions-about-disability-insurance-for-athletes.html?ref=nationalcollegiateathleticassn.
[9] Glenn M. Wong & Chris Deubert, The Legal & Business Aspects of Career-Ending Disability Insurance Policies In Professional and College Sports, 17 Vill. Sports & Ent. L.J. 473, 495-96 (2010), available at http://lawweb2009.law.villanova.edu/sportslaw/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/VXII-2-THE-LEGAL-BUSINESS-ASPECTS-OF-CAREERENDING-172.pdf.
[10] See Student-Athlete Insurance Programs, NCAA (Aug. 30, 2011), http://www.ncaa.org/wps/wcm/connect/public/NCAA/NCAA+Insurance+Programs/
Student+Athlete+Insurance+Programs/Exceptional+Student+Athlete+Disability+Insurance+Program.
[11] See Chad Ford, Injury Will Deny Noel No. 1 Spot in ’13 Draft, ESPN (Feb. 13, 2013), http://insider.espn.go.com/nba/blog/_/name/nba_draft/id/8944230/nba-draft-injury-kentucky-nerlens-noel-ends-bid-no-1-pick-2013.
[12] Id.
[13] See 
Pat FordeAt a Loss: Nerlens Noel’s Fluke Knee Injury Casts Pall Over Promising Talent’s Basketball Career, Yahoo! Sports (Feb. 12, 2013), http://sports.yahoo.com/news/ncaab–nerlens-noel-s-fluke-knee-injury-casts-bleak-pall-over-promising-talent-s-basketball-career-042703462.html.

 

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