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Darnellia Russell & The WNBA Age Requirement: How costly is higher education?

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Just last night while surfing the web, I stumbled across an article from the Globe and Mail (Canada's national newspaper) about Darnellia Russell, who you may remember from the documentary "Heart of the Game".

Unable to get a scholarship after Division I schools found out she was pregnant, Darnellia tried to enter the WNBA but was denied.

That was where The Heart of the Game ended and where Russell's celebrity status exploded. She travelled the continent promoting the film as the teenager who took on the system and won. The movie received several honours, including the top entertainment award from the Women's Sports Foundation in Los Angeles. People recognized Russell and asked for her autograph. But those scholarship offers from Division I schools? They stopped coming soon after word got out she was pregnant.

Still eager to combine basketball and school, Russell found herself boxed in. She didn't have the money to attend a major school. She contacted the WNBA, but was told she needed a degree from a four-year institution, a league stipulation.

Russell is now preparing to play for the Lakehead University Thunderwolves in Thunder Bay, Canada – not too far from the Minnesota border in Ontario, Canada -- after spending two years playing for North Seattle Community College. This is just the latest in a long line of complications that Russell has faced, some of which were covered in the movie.

I wasn’t aware that the WNBA’s eligibility requirements were so tough, so I looked into it a bit. As it turns out, the WNBA has the toughest age requirement policy of any professional sport, which "precludes a potential class of players from entering the professional leagues until their expected dates of college graduation."

So I wondered, is Russell’s situation a case where the WNBA’s age requirement is unfair to prospective players?

Immediately Brittney Griner came to mind. I hadn’t heard of her before reading about her on the 5280ft blog a couple of weeks ago and wondered if she would be the first to try and declare for the WNBA draft out of high school.

As more athletes like Griner (enormous potential) and Russell (hardship) aspire to play professionally, you have to wonder how long it will be before someone comes along and challenges the WNBA’s age/education requirement rule.

And if that challenge does come, the central issue in the debate be something along the lines of the following question: what is the cost of the WNBA’s eligibility requirements for the prospective athletes?

The Upside: Talent development

I dug up a Val Ackerman quote from a CNN interview from some years ago that summarizes the WNBA’s thinking behind their age requirement:

I think everyone in our league has benefited from it. We have a league which is able to access players who are not only physically capable but they are mature, in terms of their ability to adjust to the rigors of professional sports. We have players who benefit from the collegiate experience and the richness of that. And in fact, we have a 95 percent graduation rate among players, because they have had opportunity go to college and get their degrees. And also for us, it's enabled the women's college game to stay very vibrant, and that's critical to us as league. We need a strong college game in order for women's pro basketball to be successful. And by having players there for four years, they get the benefit of that as well.
So it boils down to giving athletes time to mature, making sure they get an education and supporting the development of women’s basketball by ensuring that the best talent plays for college programs.

This also seems to fit well with the WNBA’s emphasis on providing role models for young girls. Chamique Holdsclaw embraced this notion of being a positive role model when she described why she chose to stay in school:
Chamique Holdsclaw decided she would not be the first to challenge the age/education policy in women's basketball, she did so because she wanted to act in a manner that she believed showed leadership to young women. In a March 1998 article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Holdsclaw was quoted as stating, "I really want to see these young women set goals. And I want one of those goals to be to get that degree."
And of course, getting the degree is a big deal for WNBA players because the average player is not going to make more than about $50,000 dollars a season (from what I’ve been able to find). Obviously, that’s substantially less than what athletes in men’s professional leagues make, although the salaries may be consistent with league revenue.

However, some might consider the very necessity to make a decision based upon limited earnings to be a part of the problem.

The Downside: A matter of restricted labor and gender equity ?

One of the biggest arguments against age requirements in professional sports is that they restrict a person’s ability to pursue the profession of their choice. And given the racial demographics of the NBA and NFL – the two major sports that employ age requirements – some even accused the NBA of racism when they implemented an age requirement.

So with that logic, it would follow that some people could also label the WNBA’s age requirement as sexist.
The WNBA rule inequitably requires prospective women's professional basketball players to first offer their services for four years to a college basketball program, even while their male counterparts are allowed to earn money playing basketball on the professional level. Moreover, one notion of this policy is that talented female athletes must delay their personal gratification and first achieve academic pursuits prescribed to them by society and the corporate sport structure. This reinforces an old and dangerous stereotype of women as being necessarily philanthropic creatures (i.e. caring, passive, and non-aggressive). Conversely, men are allowed to be individualistic. This clash between the educational ideals of female student-athletes and the merits of personal autonomy complicate evaluating the ethics underlying the WNBA age/education policy.
This is essentially the antithesis of the role model argument -- that while men can pursue what they want, women have the "burden" reinforcing higher social ideals.

But there’s a much simpler argument – what if a player like Griner gets injured playing college basketball and loses out on the little salary she could have made? By imposing an age requirement, prospective athletes may risk losing out on a career option.

In addition, if a player is physically able to compete in the WNBA, it’s hard to see what a college degree has to do with their ability to perform on the court. In Russell’s case, this would seem especially pertinent – if she is able to play is it reasonable to keep her out of the WNBA because of an education requirement?

If the challenge is inevitable, what is the solution?

Personally, I think age requirements are good for women’s basketball and the prospective players. I see it this way: in the NBA, just getting drafted in the first round can net you upwards of $700,000 and earning a contract as a second round pick can get you the league minimum of $275,000.

Conversely, in the WNBA, if you play for a few years and flame out and lack a college degree, your career options are quite limited and your savings near empty. As Holdsclaw implied, it’s better to encourage young girls to go for the degree. But then you come right back to a bigger question: is it patronizing to tell young girls what to do with their lives?

If the WNBA tried to find a middle ground, like the NBA did with their requirement of one year of college (which has been a terrible idea), it could end up doing harm to the women’s college game, which is not good for women’s basketball either.

Russell didn’t challenge the WNBA’s age/education eligibility requirement – and neither did Candace Parker or Chamique Holdsclaw despite considerable talent. Nevertheless, a challenge to the rule seems inevitable at some point, just as Robin Roberts predicted back in 1998.
"It is something that women's sports will have to address when that first hotshot feels she's ready to go early to the WNBA or ABL," Roberts said. "I think high school recruits are now looking at programs that are on television a great deal to help market themselves for the future. They should be looking at the school based on the type of education they will receive."

Relevant Links:

A thread from Rebkell about Russell (Women's Hoops beat me to the posting punch this morning :) )

Greatness and Griner Go Hand in Hand

19 and Upside: Age Requirement Benefits Professional and College Basketball

Transition Points:

If you’re interested in the legal aspects of the WNBA age requirement, an interesting report on all that has already been done. And yes, legally, there may be a case against the WNBA's current rule.