Nerlens Noel, a players' union in shambles and the NBA age minimum

Andy Lyons

The top college prospect in the nation, Kentucky center Nerlens Noel, went down with what looks to be a devastating knee injury on Tuesday. He should be in the NBA getting paid. Why aren't players looking out for themselves?

Say what you will about DeMaurice Smith and the NFL Players Association, but in that league the union seems to advocate for its members on issues not solely tied to money. Under Billy Hunter, the National Basketball Players Association has let any number of non-financial matters skate by as David Stern's insistence. One of those is the age minimum, which prevents players from jumping straight from high school to the league. It was instituted in 2005, when the league and union got to the brink of a(nother) lockout but cut a deal at the last minute. (I am aware that the NFL has an age minimum as well, but that's been around forever. The NBA's rule is relatively new.)

There is no player benefit to the age minimum. At the time, there was a small, ridiculous argument that players should support an age minimum because it would leave more jobs and salary for veteran players. That applied to players for only the first year of the program -- now, it has evened out. Now 19-year-olds are getting the roster spots and salary slots that 18-year-olds used to get.

The NBA and players' union were supposed to address the age minimum during 2011 collective bargaining. Money kinda derailed all of that. Eventually, the age minimum became one of a few issues that would be looked at by player-owner committees after the lockout. The league reportedly wanted to push it up to 20. Guess what? As far as we know, there has been zero progress on this.

That's Billy Hunter's crime. Henry Abbott wrote an excellent piece a few weeks ago riffing off of the investigation that will likely eventually end Hunter's tenure as the union's executive director. Abbott's thesis was that regardless of any fraud committed, at the very least he was not doing the work he was supposed to be doing, which was being the players' advocate. Frankly, the age minimum is ground zero for that problem. The age minimum is as much a players' issue as it is an owners' issue (if not more), and Hunter and the union have been totally absent throughout the entire of its existence.

Why is the age minimum a players' issue? Because free agency means more than being able to pick your team. It means having the agency to freely make choices about how to build a career. The age minimum wiped a popular path off the table for no good reason. (The NBA maintains that it was a business decision. Owners didn't want to have to force their teams to scout and take risks on less developed players. Of course, even with that hurdle removed, GMs still pick busts at the same rate as before the age minimum.)

Why is this a players' issue? Because of guys like Nerlens Noel, who would have been a top-10 pick if not for the age minimum. Instead, he signed with Kentucky for a year, confirmed his status as the best prospect in the land, and suffered a torn ACL on Tuesday. He will miss the season. If the injury is as bad as it seems, his draft stock could tumble, and the age minimum could cost him real dollars. And it's not all about injuries: it's about forcing players to delay their earning career -- which hurts their families in many cases -- and it forces them into the shady underworld of high-stakes college athletics. Ask Shabazz Muhammed. Ask Derrick Rose, who would likely have been suspended for half of his sophomore season had an age-20 minimum been in place in 2008. Imagine if the age minimum had been put in place in 2002-03. Imagine the circus of eligibility questions around LeBron James, who had a car issue and a jersey issue. Subjecting players to all of that should be something the union works to avoid. Making suits rich under a sham of amateurism should be something the union works to avoid.

The players' union doesn't represent high school or college players, but it's foolish to ignore the fact that the best high school and college players will be NBA players' union members. The union should be protecting them like it protects its own. But that would require the union actually doing some protecting, period.

A robust union serving its members would have fought the age minimum hard in 2005, and seeing it back on the table in 2011 would have fought to repeal it. Certainly, a union serving its members and future members wouldn't let the issue smolder for 14 months as it sits in limbo. It looks like change within the union will happen soon. But that's going to be little consolation for Noel if our worst fears are realized.

BOXING OUT

He's perfect. LeBron James has become the perfect basketball player. Here is Tuesday's line:

30 points, 11-15 FGAs, 6 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocks, 1 turnover, .767 eFG, .810 True Shooting, 170 offensive rating.

Oh, and THIS WAS HIS SIXTH STRAIGHT GAME LIKE THIS. The crazy shooting is one thing. But that many assists and that few turnovers on top of that shooting and defense? He's not of this world.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to reflect the news about Noel's torn ACL.

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