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Eamonn Brennan

Age limit rationale: 18-year-olds are immature, 19-year-olds not

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One gold-medal-winning top row is worth a thousand age limit-related words.

The NBA's age limit -- which, as we've seen in the first few years of one-and-done players, affects the NCAA disproportionately -- is likely going to continue to be the story of the offseason, at least until we finally get around to ranking the Big East's coaches, at which point all basketball commentary will halt and bow before the sheer wisdom of my arbitrary, nonsensical reasoning. (It's coming, I promise. That's a big conference, huh? Lots of typing.) But yes, thanks to Derrick Rose and Memphis and maybe John Calipari (but don't say that to Kentucky fans), the age limit is all the rage. Just ask Steve Cohen.

So it's probably worth occasionally poking holes in the rationale that leads us to this decision. For example, David Stern's deft deflection of the news about Cohen's letter yesterday:

Stern noted that Congress has an age limit -- 25 years old for the House of Representatives -- that the founding fathers put instated [sic] because making decisions that could affect a nation requires a certain level of maturity and wisdom. Stern then talked about needing a certain level of basketball maturity before you play at the highest level of the sport.

That's a clever response from Stern, but let's take a look at the thinking there. The idea is that if you're 18 years of age, you're too immature for the NBA. Ah, but if you're 19, you're ready. Who remembers being 18 or 19? Remember how much more mature you felt at age 19? Remember how you immediately started saving your money? And eating healthy? Remember how you stopped indulging in alcohol and sold your XBOX 360, and how you started going to bed at 10 p.m. sharp every night so that you could wake up at 6 a.m. and go for a nice run before you started your day?

This process does not happen overnight. Some people are more mature than others. Some really do these things at age 19. But it's pretty tough to argue that 19-year-olds are significantly more mature than 18-year-olds, especially if you've ever been around large groups of college freshmen. They're pretty much as dumb as they were 365 days ago.

We can extend that to basketball. It's OK for 19-year-olds to decide they want to leave college early and go to the NBA even if they might not be ready, but it's not OK for 18-year-olds to do so? A ready player is a ready player; a bad decision is a bad decision. What's difference does 12 months make?

Which is why Stern's analogy fails. Philosophically, it doesn't connect. Practically, there are mounds of evidence -- a cursory look down a list of the NBA's best players, for one -- that contradict it. Maturity is a process, and that process isn't zero sum.

What's more, why do we care if high graduates make bad decisions about their careers? Why are sports the only arena in which this is a public concern? As Gary Parrish wrote yesterday:

My question: Why do we care if high school graduates make bad decisions about their careers?

God knows how many high school graduates skip college to try to pursue careers in acting or singing or poker (or you name it), and many of them (if not most of them) are making bad decisions when they do it. For every Conor Oberst , there are thousands of young songwriters living out of their cars, totally broke. But who cares? They are adults free to make decisions about their paths in life. And if we don't care about those high school graduates who might make mistakes, why do we care about these high school graduates who might make mistakes?

Conor Oberst: The Ricky Rubio of songwriting?

Anyway, Parrish is right. But he doesn't get explicit enough to list the reasons why we pretend to care about basketball players going to college and not, say, kids who eschew college to enlist in the Army: money. College basketball wants NBA-caliber players for a year so it has an attraction. It wants to book the top talent, but it doesn't want to pay for it. The NBA's owners want to avoid draft busts. They want to spend their considerable sums of money on guarantees. And they want their young players to have the added profile of a successful NCAA tournament run.

That's why we act like we care. We don't. Of course not. The sooner everyone admits that there are some players that just don't belong in college, even for a year, the better off everyone -- except those profiting off the unpaid, basically forced labor of a select few highly talented individuals, and screw them, right? -- will be. And we'll be able to enjoy a college basketball game without having to take a shower after. That sounds nice.

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