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Are NBA And NFL Rules Bush League?

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If there's one rule in American sports that is universally despised, it is the National Basketball Association's stipulation that a player cannot be drafted out of high school, but must put in an extra year playing somewhere — invariably at college. It makes a sham of both education and teamwork, and when the best kids are picked up, the policy is properly ridiculed as "one-and-done."

Interestingly, our four major sports leagues all have widely divergent rules for age eligibility. In baseball, players can be drafted right out of high school, and for the NHL, candidates must only be 18. Conversely, in the NFL, a player must be three seasons out of high school before he can be drafted. The rationale is safety: namely that football is too brutal for even monster teenagers to go up against grown men. So players engage in hazardous big-time college ball against other 300-pounders for three years, jeopardizing their chance of making a paid career of their sport.

Both the NFL and the NBA profit because players make a name for themselves in highly visible college competition, so it's a bonanza for them to deny early admission. Sensitive observers — although invariably naive — have suggested that basketball and football should have minor leagues, like baseball. Unfortunately, you can't undo history. Baseball grew up as primarily a town game, and every proud little city wanted a baseball team — even one in what was called a "bush league," along with an ornate opera house to validate its position.

From the first, though, football was tied foremost to school and college. When basketball came along, it followed in this path. Rah, rah, rah.

So today, it's patently foolish to think that a bush-league football or basketball network could compete with established big-time college conferences. What hotshot star would opt to play before a few hundred folks out in the bushes when he can be on national TV, starring before packed houses at, say, the University of Kentucky?

The NBA does have something called a developmental league, which is basically a staging area for fringe players –– not for stars on the way up, a la the baseball minor league model –– and there's now scuttlebutt that if the NBA would pay high school graduates substantially more, they'd opt for the so-called D-League instead of college for a couple seasons.

More sensibly, though, let's just acknowledge the truth — that colleges are minor leagues — and let the NBA and the NFL draft the best players out of high school and have them mature on college teams. The pros would pay tuition and the players would be salaried, just like baseball minor leaguers. But, of course, the NCAA would rather have it that their players can only be paid under the table, by boosters. That's what's really bush.

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