March Madness and Draft Day Decisions

As college basketball players are preparing to advance into the post season, some college basketball players are beginning to look forward past college and into their professional careers. Satou Sabally is one of the University of Oregon’s top players. She has 1,475 career points, averaging 16.8 points per game and 7.2 rebounds per game. Sabally has decided to forgo her senior season at the University of Oregon and has officially declared for the 2020 WNBA draft.

She announced her decision on social media and in an exclusive interview with ESPN where she stated, “after this season I am going pro. I really want to just fulfill my childhood dream and play in the WNBA.” The decision to forego her junior year places Sabally in a coveted group of impressive women who declared early for the WNBA draft.

Unlike the NBA draft, the WNBA draft emphasizes the importance of the women obtaining a college education before declaring for the draft. The WNBA CBA states that in order for a woman to declare for the WNBA draft she must: (1) be at least 22 years old during the calendar year in which such draft is held; or (2) have graduated from a four-year college or university prior to such draft or is to graduate from such college or university within the three month period following the draft; or (3) have attended a four-year college or university, her original class in such college or university has already been graduated or is to graduate within the three month period following such draft. The CBA goes on to say that if the woman has qualified in one of the above three categories she must also have: (1) no remaining intercollegiate eligibility; or (2) have renounced her remaining intercollegiate eligibility by written notice to the WNBA at least 10 days prior to such draft.

Image Credit: Andy Nelson

Sabally is eligible for the draft because she turns 22 during this calendar year and because she is renouncing her last year of eligibility. Since the CBA negotiated increased salaries for WNBA players, this may be an advantageous decision. In the new deal, the base salaries for rookies who are selected in the first four picks is $68,000, and picks 5 through 8 get $62,250. The remaining first-round picks get $62,500 in their first seasons. Typically, rookie contracts are three year deals with a fourth year option, which for the highest-picked rookies would be $86,701.

Sabally stated that the change under the new collective bargaining agreement was appealing because of the financial opportunity. Sabally stated in an interview with ESPN that she wanted to provide her family with a “better lifestyle,” she continued, “my family is not that financially rich or in the middle class, I feel like I can finally give back and make their lives a little bit easier, pay their rent for a nicer house.”

While the goal of her declaration is to fulfill a childhood dream and to help financially support her family, with the unpredictability of professional sports it begs the question if Sabally is making the right decision. However, Sabally considered this prior to declaring for the draft. Sabally valued the importance of her education and loaded up her course-load to ensure that she would graduate with a major and a minor in three years. Sabally stated that she “[is] a person that wants to prepare for things that could happen, and knew it was a realistic opportunity,” she explained “I took more classes so I could graduate with a major and a minor in three years you kind of have to be determined in your classes and be prepared in terms of talking to agents.”

Image Credit: 247Sports

The regulations that the WNBA draft has in place exemplifies an intent to make sure that the women finish their education. The limitations on when and whom can declare for the WNBA draft significantly limits the chances of a player declaring without graduating.

The NCAA’s position on the draft list clearly states that an individual loses their amateur status in a particular sport when the individual asks to be placed on the draft list even though; (a) the individual asks that his or her name be withdrawn from the draft list prior to actual draft; (b) the individual’s name remains on the list but he or she is not drafted; or (c) the individual is drafted but does not sign an agreement with any professional athletics team.

However, the NCAA does have an exception for women’s basketball; an enrolled student-athlete may enter a professional league’s draft one time during her collegiate career without jeopardizing eligibility in that sport, provided that the student-athlete is not drafted by any team in that league. This would allow Sabally to return to Oregon in the event that she is not drafted. The NCAA’s mission statement says that “our purpose is to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into high education so that the educational experience of the student athlete is paramount.”

The WNBA draft seems to align with the NCAA intended purpose of valuing higher education. However, there is an exception that the NCAA is willing to make for men’s basketball. This exception compromises their stated principles of valuing the educational experience. The NBA draft rules state that: a player must be 19 years old during the draft calendar year, and at least one season has to have passed since graduating high school. The NBA draft also states that the player will lose college eligibility if an agent is hired, or if the player declares for the draft twice. Already there is a stark difference between the age of eligible players for the NCAA draft and the WNBA draft. Not only is the required age for eligibility three years apart, but the separation is even more impactful based on the stage of life that these athletes are in. One semester removed from high school or at 19 years of age ensures that the men will be unable to obtain a college education. There can obviously be an argument made that if someone can declare for the NBA draft that early it is because they are an elite prospect. However, the average NBA career is about 4.5 years, which leave the players with the harsh reality that life after basketball may come sooner than they may have previously thought.

So how does the NCAA balance its intended purpose to provide a college education to its student athletes with the eligibility requirements of the NBA draft? The NCAA bylaws state that a men’s basketball player may enter the NBA draft each year during his collegiate participation without jeopardizing eligibility in that sport, provided that: (a) the student-athlete requests an evaluation from the NBA’s Undergraduate Advisory Committee before entering the draft; (b) the student-athlete requests that his name be removed from the draft list and declares his intent to resume intercollegiate participation not later than 10 days after the conclusion of the draft combine; (c) the student-athlete’s declaration of intent is submitted in writing to the institution’s director of athletics; and (d) the student-athlete is not drafted. This rule provides that in a scenario where a 19 year-old men’s basketball player declares for the draft, but is not drafted, he can return to school without losing eligibility.

Image Credit: NBA.com

Since the NCAA allows men’s basketball players to declare for the draft twice without losing their eligibility, there is still a glimmer of the NCAA’s intended purposes. However, it’s hard to ignore that obtaining a college education for elite men’s basketball players may not be a top priority. The revolving door continues as the top men’s basketball players touch the courts in March Madness, and then later touch the screens on draft day. Begging the question, in this booming business, is education truly a priority? Maybe for the majority of college athletes, but not necessarily for the lucrative ones.

   

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'21 J.D. Candidate at the University at Buffalo School of Law

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