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Nerlens Noel Injury: NBA Should Keep Age Limit Despite Kentucky Star's Setback

LEXINGTON, KY - FEBRUARY 09:  Nerlens Noel #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats walks down the court during the game against the Auburn Tigers at Rupp Arena on February 9, 2013 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Timothy RappFeatured ColumnistFebruary 14, 2013

We're starting the wrong debate for the right reasons. 

With the terrible injury to Nerlens Noel this week, a torn ACL that will end the Kentucky star's freshman season, the debate about the NBA's age limit has been started anew.

It's even extended to football, with folks suggesting South Carolina star Jadeveon Clowney should sit out a year or challenge the NFL's three-years-removed-from-high school rule that prevents most athletes from declaring for the draft until after their junior season of college.

For an impassioned takedown on that policy, I recommend checking out Mike Silver's article on the subject over at Yahoo! Sports.

I agree with the notion that it's ridiculous a high school senior entering the next stage of his life can't earn some money in his future career. I see the risks these guys take playing for free, potentially costing themselves millions of dollars if they get injured while the NBA and NFL don't pay a dime, but it is called the NCAA and is essentially a free minor league system for both leagues.

But I also think both leagues are smart to enact age limits. I really do. The NFL is no place for young, underdeveloped athletes, and Clowney is the rare stud that could make an impact after two years of college ball.

And the NBA was a diluted product when over half of its annual draft was made up of totally unproven high school players. The league was suddenly full of bench players making millions of dollars who weren't even 20 yet, and needed a different intensity of coaching and guidance.

I've always been a proponent of paying college football and basketball players a stipend, and I think that's a part of the solution. And I think it's high time the NBA and NFL stopped treating college football and college basketball like a free minor-league system and paid into a fund to pay those players.

Think of it as an investment.

And I also think we should really encourage those players who want to get paid immediately to play basketball overseas. It worked for Brandon Jennings, it could work for other players as well. 

Both the NFL and NBA are making smart business decisions by enacting age limits, but it's high time we recognize the risk some of these players undertake playing for free.

I'm not talking about paying college football and basketball players millions of dollars, just offering them a decent monthly stipend and assisting in insurance payments for superstars like Clowney, who could cost himself millions of dollars if he is injured next year.

These players help universities earn millions of dollars, and do so as athletes who risk their futures should they be injured. I highly doubt a lab student doing research that will aid a university in gaining grants is putting their future at any sort of risk.

A free education is a great perk, I agree. But most of these athletes are majoring in basketball or football, not English. We should offer them programs that focus on sports-related careers to major in, treat them like university employees and try to soften some of the risk that injuries, like the one to Noel, present.

Most of these guys are really committed to playing football or basketball, and a part-time job isn't feasible. But they do have a job—helping the university make millions upon millions of dollars by playing a game.

They do it for free. It's absurd.

The NBA and NFL shouldn't change their age-limit rules. Those rules ensure a better product and, in my opinion, have the best interests of young athletes in mind. There are only so many LeBron James, Kobe Bryants and Kevin Garnetts out there. It's a small percentage.

But we do need to alter the college sports landscape, starting with paying college basketball and football players. 

It's time to change the debate. It's time to stop pretending like college sports are amateur athletics. 

They aren't. They haven't been for a long, long time.

 

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