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What the NBA Could Learn From the WNBA: Staying in School FTW

Martin Johnson wrote a nice little piece for TheRoot.com about how the University of North Carolina men's team won the national title primarily on the strength of their upperclassmen...which is further support for the NBA to implement a higher age minimum, as the WNBA has always done. The result could be better basketball:
As a result, the sort of "veteran" teams that we’ve become accustomed to seeing cut down the nets on the first Monday in April, may become the norm throughout the NCAA. Building a winning college basketball program used to be equal parts recruiting talented players and coaching them into a unit. Since the mid-‘90s, it seemed that recruiting had begun to take on a dominant share. With the recent title teams and coming changes in the NBA, those veteran teams will become the standard across the board. When they do, the upsets that once characterized this tournament will return.


The response from women's basketball fans: uh, duh....

No matter what critiques one might have about women's basketball this is something that it has right already -- their players stay longer and it makes for the development of great teams rather than the fleeting excitement of great individual performances.

Nevertheless, I often go back and forth on this age minimum issue (especially when considering Darnellia Russell's situation), but you can't deny the results: as a fan, it makes for better basketball during one of the premiere basketball events in the U.S. -- March Madness. How can you argue with that?

So I wonder, having just witnessed March Madness and now looking forward to the draft, does anyone really believe that the WNBA should loosen their age minimum? If so, how?

I'm honestly soliciting thoughts on this rather than purporting to have something new to say about the issue... but I will just rehash some of the age-old arguments for the sake of discussion...

The Phenom Factor

I would call you foolish without reservation if you said that LeBron James was not ready to go pro. Ditto for Greg Oden...Kevin Durant...the list goes on. The latest in that line of players who has absolutely nothing further to gain from college basketball is clearly Blake Griffin, who announced that he's making the jump to the NBA yesterday.

So would the WNBA cave or bend their age requirement with a player like Brittney Griner coming through the pipeline...or having already watched Maya Moore play around with college kids all season?

Clearly players like Chamique Holdsclaw and Candace Parker have argued that staying in school was a good decision...so I don't know how much clamoring for a change there really is. And honestly, if Parker and Holdsclaw are ok with it, there aren't really many other college players in the world who should have a problem with it.

But is it fair to confine a player of Griner's obvious talent to the NCAA?

Why the Phenom Factor *Should* Not Matter for the WNBA?

People love stories.

Plenty of people have done research on that... but really, I think we can all agree on that.

Women's basketball needs a narrative that will "legitimize" it to people who have doubts, draw them in, and keep them coming back.

Those narratives should start by watching the players develop a college legacy -- from the recruitment stages, to the growing pains of losing in the early years, to winning championships in their later years. It gives us something to hold on to. Something to look forward to...and builds upon long-standing college allegiances to build pro allegiances.

Furthermore, it goes back to developing a narrative about what a female athlete *is* before even trying to move forward with marketing a professional women's game. We have to shift the narrative of what it means to be a female athlete if we really want to see women's sports take off in this country.

So then...

Why Not Scrap the Age Minimum and Start Creating Those Narratives With Younger Players?

Simple answer (to the completely absurd hypothetical question I've made up to set up the rest of my post): It's just plain silly to send messages about a glamorous career in sports to kids who have not even lived away from their guardians yet. In fact, it borders on irresponsible, reprehensible, immoral.

OK... strong words... (perhaps you can tell the recruiting industry bothers me).

But when I see stories about sixth grade phenoms who are ranked as a member of next decade's recruiting class, I almost want to vomit. I mean wasn't there a great movie documenting how corrupting these elusive Hoop Dreams can be on players, family members, and coaches? Was that not convincing enough? Why do we continue to want to perpetuate this cycle of setting kids up to be crushed?

And though the NBA can not be held responsible for some opportunistic wanna-be who feels the need to make a living ranking sixth graders in basketball, part of what keeps this insane recruiting industry sinking to new lows is the large amounts of money in the promised land at the top, in the NBA. The easier it is to get to that promised land -- meaning you don't have to pretend to take four years of classes seriously -- the easier it will be to legitimize the idea that someone should be tracking kids as early as sixth grade. So although I don't blame the NBA (or the NY Times) for creating this basketball mythology, I think that sending a message from the top that there is more to life than basketball (*gasp*...I can't even believe I wrote that) is valuable.

So I will come to a tentative conclusion about the WNBA age requirement: if women's basketball wants to avoid this race to the bottom of convincing kids who still watch Saturday Morning cartoons that "Basketball is Life" then the age requirement is one way to keep things in perspective. This is a game, kids should enjoy as a game, and hopefully continue to see it as a ticket to getting a top flight education rather than a gambling on the fragility of a professional basketball career.

I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow... ;)

Transition Points:

For anyone who really wanted to Free Brittney Griner from the horrific tyranny of a college education, then consider the Brandon Jennings plan -- go play in Europe and get your money until you're eligible to play pro in the U.S. Call me crazy, but I happen to think Griner made the right decision by choosing education... but how long before a female baller decides she's better off bolting to Europe for a few years?