Should high schoolers play major league sports?

A recent court decision has struck down the NFL prohibition on drafting high school players, or players within three years of high school. While the decision may be overturned on appeal, both professional basketball and baseball already draft players right out of high school.

Why might a professional sports league seek to prohibit such draft picks? First, the prohibition is part of an overall bargain with a players’ union. Players’ unions are composed of insiders, people already in the professional sport. By banning high school players, the league extends the career of the median established player. Apparently this is a cheaper concession than paying those players more money. In essence the players’ union is redistributing money from the superstars to the average players. The very best players lose a few years off the beginning of their careers. But a comparable long-run penalty need not fall on the good (but not exceptional) high school players. Once they are drafted, they will enjoy a longer career than otherwise. The superstars, in contrast, can stick around with or without competition from high school players.

Second, banning high school players helps keep the league in competitive balance. Consider the NBA. There was once a time when the prime draft picks had played four years of college ball. The worst team picked first and was virtually guaranteed to pick a future star, usually a player with immediate positive impact (exception: LaRue Martin). Today the team that picks first takes a gamble on an unknown, with no guarantee of getting good value. So the bad teams are more likely to stay bad for a long time. When the losing Milwaukee Bucks picked Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1970s, they were an immediate championship contender. The losing Washington Wizards picked Kwame Brown, a high school player, two years ago and they have gone nowhere.

Gregg Easterbrook suggests that the prohibition on high school players raises the quality of the football game and boosts attendance. I doubt this argument. If high school players drive away fans, teams would be reluctant to pick them. You can tell complicated stories about cross-league externalities, but for the most part teams try their hardest to put on a good and winning show. We should trust their decisions to internalize the relevant values of youth vs. experience.

The bottom line: The courts acted wrongly to disrupt the competitive balance of the NFL.


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