The NCAA is “corrupt,” LeBron James said Tuesday, echoing a sentiment that’s seemingly growing louder as more coaches are implicated in an FBI pay-for-play scandal.
The Cleveland Cavaliers forward said he had been brainstorming solutions for teenage basketball players who want to skip the college ranks, likening his ideas to a hybrid of baseball’s farm-team system and Europe’s club teams.
Said James, considering the NBA’s G League for player development:
“I just looked at it like the farm league, like in baseball. Or you look at pros overseas; some of those guys get signed at 14, but they get put into this farm system where they’re able to grow and be around other professionals for three or four years. Then when they’re ready, they hit the national team, or when they’re ready, they become a pro. So I think us, we have to kind of really figure that out, how we can do that. …
“We have to figure out if a kid feels like at 16 or 17 he doesn’t feel like the NCAA is for him, or whatever the case may be, [then] we have a system in place where we have a farm league where they can learn and be around the professionals, but not actually become a professional at that point in time. Not actually play in the NBA, but learn for a few years. Learn what the NBA life is about, learn how to move and walk and talk and things of that nature.”
Former president Barack Obama voiced similar thoughts during an off-the-record lecture at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last week:
“Everybody acts shocked that some kid from extraordinarily poor circumstances who’s got potentially 5 or 10 or 15 million dollars waiting for him is going to be circled by everybody, in a context in which people are making billions of dollars. It’s not good. At minimum, one way of thinking about this would be what happens in baseball. If you’re [as good as] Bryce Harper or Aaron Judge, then you make that jump [to the professional level]. Even if you’re not ready for the big leagues immediately, at least it’s clear that this is going to be your profession. You start getting paid, the professional organization is on the hook, there’s clarity. If you’re not Bryce Harper or Aaron Judge, then you go to college, but you’re signing up for a certain amount of time.”
While those ideas sound encouraging, there are flaws in both minor league baseball, where players often can’t make a living wage, and European club sports, where prospects are drafted away from their families as young as age 14, that have led years’ worth of pleas for reform, experts say.
Each system, including the NCAA, asks a young player to surrender certain rights for the opportunity to play elite sports.
- The NCAA requires athletes to forfeit their right to make money off their performance, even though the institutions that “employ” them can.
- Minor league baseball players’ rights are owned by a specific franchise, which stifles their ability to sell that talent in an open market.
- European players, sometimes as early as age 14, are bound to a club that can sell their rights all over the continent.
“The whole system is a little odd,” said Chris Dial, a youth sports advocate and founder of sports diplomacy nonprofit The Basketball Embassy. “And there are parents sitting on the other side of the table and think it’s a way out. They think this whole investment in sports is going to improve their kids’ quality of life.”
Europe’s model involves recruiting barely teenage prospects to stock future generations of professional teams. In return, clubs can offer benefits to players — such as family housing and a salary — that would be considered “impermissible benefits” in the NCAA, Dial said.
Clubs can afford that investment in young talent but have a built-in safety net: If a kid wants to stop playing basketball, his family must help the club recoup the money it invested in the child.
“You become liable essentially for the investment they’ve made in your kid if he doesn’t pan out,” Dial said. “You committed to play and to go to workouts and to eat right and show up on time. And if you don’t want to do that, you’re legally required to do it.”
Minor league baseball isn’t built for that same all-encompassing economic approach. In the farm-system model, minor league teams aren’t out to build fan bases and pack ballparks, Southern Utah University sports economics professor David Berri said. They’re out to mold major league players, whatever the cost.
And since that cost is often pretty high — coaching staff salaries, hosting and traveling to and from games, etc. — they can’t afford to pay most players much. A starting salary for minor league baseball players sometimes amounts to $12,000 a year, according to a lawsuit filed by players against Major League Baseball.
Economics aside, developing professional baseball and basketball players are entirely different tasks. The gap between an MLB-ready baseball player and a minor leaguer is sometimes an ocean, Berri said. LeBron himself is proof teenagers can successfully make it in the NBA.
“If you have a player you draft and he’s not getting a lot of minutes, you can send him down [to the G League] so he can play some, but I don’t know that we could really call that development,” Berri said. “By the time the guy is 19, 20, 21 years old and they’ve already played thousands of games, they are what they are. You’re not going to develop them.”
So where does that leave LeBron and his ideas?
“I don’t have the answer to it right now,” he said. “I’ve been brainstorming a lot.”
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