Age Restrictions in Professional Leagues

November 22, 2015


By Stephen Kroeger – Thompson Rivers University 2L JD Student

The National Football League (NFL) requires draft picks to attend college for three years before they can enter the draft and turn pro. The National Basketball Association (NBA) mandates that their players be one year out of high school, effectively requiring one year of college, and the National Hockey League (NHL) requires players to be 18 years old before they are drafted. Each league has a different approach and age threshold to permitting athletes becoming professional amongst their ranks which raises the question why have a minimum age requirement at all?

Auston Matthews, a 17 year old hockey player, recently chose to move to Switzerland in order to turn pro a year before he is eligible to be drafted by the NHL. The annual salary range in Switzerland is from $80,000 to $450,000. In contrast, he would have played in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), where there is no salary, only a weekly stipend of $150. With 17 points in his first 14 games in the top division in Switzerland, Matthews has proven that he can play at a professional level, albeit it is Switzerland, while some in his corner argue that he even could play in the NHL making even more money despite his young age.

The NBA requires players to be at least one year out of high school in order to be eligible for the draft. OJ Mayo, now a professional in the NBA was 19 years old when he graduated high school, yet still was forced to play a year in college at USC. In some instances the best college players stay one year and exit early to the draft. This so called ‘one and done’ culture among college basketball players is due to the idea that, in their minds, they are wasting a year and would be better served developing and playing professionally with the most talented coaches and athletes available.
In the past, players like Lebron James and Kobe Bryant were able to enter the league directly out of high school simply because they were good enough. Professional teams employ armies of scouts to evaluate talent and determine when the athlete is game ready. If a player is deemed talented enough to play, why should leagues block them?

Recently a case has begun in an attempt to bypass the strict rules of the NFL CBA. If successful, it could open the door to anti-trust law challenges in other leagues.

Leonard Fournette is a sophomore running back for the Louisiana State University football team. He is considering suing the NFL to enter the draft early. Currently, he is not eligible to be drafted until 2017, and with 1404 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns in his first seven games this season, it is reasonable to assume that he is NFL ready. If filed, his case would attempt to overturn the decision made twelve years ago involving former Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett, where the appeals court held that, “because the NFL’s age requirement was collectively bargained with the players association and not unilaterally implemented, the rule was exempt from anti-trust law.”

According to some legal experts, Fournette’s case is not unreasonable. They argue that he could sue in a sympathetic court such as the district court in Minnesota which has traditionally held that the non-statutory labor exemption to antitrust law cannot apply where the rule primarily affect members of the collective bargaining relationship.

Should his challenge eventually make it to the courts and end up in his favour, a precedent would be set for players to sue other United States based leagues (ie. NHL and NBA) to gain entry into the league they have dreamed of playing in their entire lives. Instead of risking injury playing for a scholarship or a slavishly low weekly stipend, players who have the talent to elevate their game to the professional game should be eligible regardless of their age.

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