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Eamonn Brennan

Buzz Bissinger destroys the age limit in one fell swoop

The Dagger

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You probably know Buzz Bissinger as the author of the seminal "Friday Night Lights," one of the greatest sports books ever written.* You might also know Bissinger as a man willing to spit himself silly on premium cable television at the notion of sports blogs. (Not a sports blog. All of them. In general.) You may also know Bissinger as the man that has since refused to back down from his underlying message but who has decided to take some of the ribbing in good stride, and who has even revisited the very sports blog(ger) he attacked on "Costas Now."

(*Or so I hear: I have yet to read it. It is one of the greatest blind spots in my entire literary arsenal. I'm embarrassed. Just admitting this has been cathartic, though; I'm going to buy it from Amazon right now.)

Today, Buzz Bissinger is in something of a new role: New York Times guest columnist. The Times published a lengthy Bissinger missive about the college hoops age limit, and perhaps unexpectedly, Bissinger comes out on the side of abolishing the whole thing and starting over anew. I admit: I did not see this coming. Apparently, neither did Buzz:

Beyond simply advancing their skills, I thought, it might turn them on to the value of an education, maybe enough to stay in school longer. Now, with another N.B.A. regular season beginning today, the issue still rages, with ramifications that go directly to the heart of whether any professional sports league has actual concern for its athletes beyond a smokescreen of clever spin. And in looking back at Stern’s decision, I am now convinced that we got punked.

Bissinger's stance as a converted member of the anti-age limit crowd lends him extra credibility; he's clearly not an ideologue. Then he gets down to business, running through the various reasons why the age limit exists (having more to do with NBA owners wanting a free development system than anything about social justice) and why comparisons to the NFL's system are disingenuous (young football players' bodies need their late teens and early 20's to develop enough to play in such a brutal league). Then, the study you've all been waiting for: Michael McCann's 2004 survey of high school NBA draft entrants' successes and failures in the pros. A summary:

A study by Michael McCann, a professor at Vermont Law School who is an expert on sports and legal issues, pointed out that of the 21 high school players who declared for the draft from 1975 to 2001, four became superstars — Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal and Tracy McGrady — and only four never made it to the N.B.A. This trend held with the high school draft classes of 2002 through 2005, the year the ban was put in place: of the 26 players drafted, 20 were still playing through last season and three have become superstars: Amar’e Stoudemire, Dwight Howard and James.

McCann did another study in 2005, which similarly quashed the notion that high school draftees tend to get in trouble more frequently than do college-educated NBA pros. And Bissinger also points to Basketball-Reference's work in destroying the myth that those players were any less productive on the floor. In both cases, anecdotal evidence has dominated the NBA fan debate on the issue. Players will fail! They'll get in trouble! They can't handle their money! They won't be any good! The truth of the matter is far different, and if anyone thinks David Stern and NBA owners don't know that, they're kidding themselves.

In the end, Bissinger proposes a system in which the NBA "foot the college’s bill for training pro athletes by paying a given amount each year for each player successfully drafted from college." Not a bad idea. Even if the money just sat in a scholarship fund, and the player himself never saw a dime of it, it wouldn't change much of what happens currently, wherein college players generate millions and millions for the NCAA and are merely rewarded with a scholarship and room and board. Which, don't get me wrong, is great. I'd take it. But it's not commensurate with most big-time college basketball players' value, and both the NCAA and the NBA know it.

Even if Bissinger's solution wouldn't work, the fact of the matter is that he has done, in the pages of the most respected newspaper in the country, what very few critics of the age limit have done before him. He has manged to destroy the NBA's underlying reasons, and he has done so not with anecdotal fuzziness but with cold, hard data. And when he was finished, he went ahead and threw some flack the NCAA's way, too. This is no small feat. The man may be a legendary spit-shouter, but when he's not busy trolling for Tony La Russa, he's an even better sportswriter.

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