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Hickok SportsThoughts

Sports historian and author Ralph Hickok of www.hickoksports.com sometimes meanders on about current happenings in sports and sometimes looks back in languor.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Age Limits, Historically Speaking

NBA Commissioner David Stern wants to raise the minimum age for the league's draft from 18 to 20. There's been a lot of comment, pro and con, about Jermaine O'Neal's rather off-the-cuff comment that Stern's idea is racist.
Those who agree with O'Neal lean heavily on the fact that hockey and baseball, where black athletes are in the minority, have no age limits. In other words, it's okay for white players to go straight from high school to the NHL or MLB. But, an age limit is imposed in basketball and football, where black players predominate.
It's time, I think, for a bit of historical perspective.
Early entry is a relatively recent phenomenon. Undergraduates couldn't enter the NFL draft until 1984, and then only as hardship cases. It wasn't until 1990 that it became routine for players to leave college early.
From 1921 through 1983, a player couldn't join an NFL team until after his college class had graduated. And for most of that time, the league was dominated by white players. From 1921 through 1933, there were fewer than a dozen black players in the league; from 1934 through 1945, there were none at all. And, after the NFL was re-integrated in 1946, it was more than 20 years before black players began to enter the league in sizeable numbers. (For example, the 1967 Green Bay Packer squad that won Super Bowl I had only 11 black players, just five of them starters.)
During that entire span and beyond, virtually every NFL rookie was at least 21 and most of them were 22. Underclassmen weren't allowed to enter the draft until after black players had begun to predominate.
The story was pretty much the same in pro basketball, except that the history is crammed into a smaller time frame. The NBA began as the Basketball Association of America in 1946.
Now, the founders were all hockey guys. Led by Walter Brown, owner of the Bruins and Boston Garden, they saw basketball simply as another source of revenue for their arenas.
Yet they didn't set up a system of junior leagues and minor leagues, as in hockey. They imitated the NFL by using a college draft. They also adopted the NFL rule that a player couldn't play in the league until his college class had graduated. And they had a very simple reason: Colleges, not junior teams, would be training their players; therefore the NFL pattern worked, while the NHL pattern would have failed.
There weren't any black players in the league, and there wouldn't be until 1950. So the rule obviously wasn't racist.
Players couldn't leave college early for the NBA until 1976. As in the NFL, that was after black athletes had become predominant in the league.
Then there's the idea that all those white teen-agers were flooding the major leagues while their black counterparts in football and basketball were being denied similar opportunities.
The fact is that, since MLB adopted its First-Year Player Draft in 1965, only 19 players have entered the majors without first playing in the minor leagues. And, of those 19, only four did it straight out of high school; the others had all spent two or more years in college, and most of them were college graduates.
Last season, there was only one teen-aged major league player, B. J. Upton, and he turned 20 less than three weeks after his debut. There wasn't a single teen-ager in the majors from 2000 through 2003. So it seems that the system does a pretty good job of keeping teen-agers out of the majors, whatever their color.
As for hockey - well, from 1969 through 1979, a player had to be at least 20 to qualify for the NHL draft. However, a similar World Hockey Association rule was thrown out by a federal court. After the WHA folded, the NHL lowered its age limit so that younger players who had already turned professional with the WHA could enter the league's 1980 draft. The threat of subsequent court action persuaded the NHL to keep the lower limit in the place.
So it would appear, from the historical evidence, that the dichotomy between "black sports" and "white sports" isn't quite so clear as Jermaine O'Neal's bandwagoners seem to believe.