Most age-discrimination cases involve graybeards and grandmas, but they can also unfairly impact youngsters hoping to jump-start professional sports careers.
Paradoxically, every professional sports organization has a different set of rules. The NFL is the most restrictive, requiring players be 2½ years removed from their high school class’ graduation to enter the draft.
The NBA mandates a one-year wait after high school and incoming players also be at least 19 years of age. Major League Baseball allows high school grads to turn pro, but once enrolled in a four-year college, players must complete their junior seasons or be 21 years old to be draft eligible.
The NHL has an early-entry draft for 18- to 20-year-olds, but non-North Americans aren’t eligible until after turning 20. Did I miss the memo that dropped merit-based criteria for getting a job?
Kobe Bryant was only 17 when he became the sixth basketball player to go straight from preps to the pros. Kevin Garnett and LeBron James were both 18 when drafted right out of high school. Willie Mays was in the Negro Leagues when he was just 16. Mickey Mantle was playing semipro baseball at 16 when spotted by a New York Yankees scout who had to wait until he graduated from high school to sign him to a contract.
Now, obviously these superstars aren’t typical, but why should anyone be deprived of a chance to compete if they meet the performance standard?
In 2004, former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett, just two years out of high school, had his challenge to the NFL eligibility rule go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected his appeal of lower court ruling.
Clarett, claiming the NFL’s age restrictions were arbitrary and anticompetitive while robbing young players of an opportunity to enter the multimillion-dollar marketplace, eventually dropped his lawsuit. The NFL plays the safety card when prohibiting minors.
But a player’s readiness to mix it up with the big boys is easily measured in tryouts or practices. Of course, Olympic sports such as tennis, swimming, gymnastics and figure skating are all filled with teen phenoms.
Ironically, in women’s gymnastics, there is a greater health concern that competitors are actually younger than they claim to be.
Meanwhile, with the likelihood of an NBA lockout next season growing, a number of underclassmen may decide to stay in school rather than risk losing out on their rookie seasons.
Better yet, the NBA should drop it’s one-and-done freshman rule and consider adopting baseball’s plan, which at least gives rising young stars a choice: Go to college for at least three years, or turn pro right out of high school.
It’s crazy to think that an 18-year-old can join the military and fight for his country, but can’t play pro ball — even if he’s good enough. Only in America.
KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news. He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.