The NHL and age limits

Jonathan Weiler is back again (as promised yesterday)!  As noted yesterday (and the day before yesterday, and the day before yesterday…), Jonathan is Director of Undergraduate Studies in Global Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. His first book, Human Rights in Russia, was published by Lynne Rienner Publishers in 2004. His second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, was published by Cambridge University Press in August 2009.  Jonathan is a frequent contributor to Huffington Post.  He also has a blog, theESPNwatch.  Like yesterday (and the day before, and the day before, etc…), the following story appeared at Jonathan’s blog:

Alright, I am going to have to get off this topic at some point. But I can’t let pass at least a mention of a *very* curious fact about sports conversations – that almost no one ever talks about NHL age minimums. Now, you might argue that no one ever talks about the NHL, period. That would be a good one, but not entirely true. ESPN covers the sport, it gets plenty of attention come playoff time and it is, at the end of the day, a multi-billion dollar sporting enterprise deemed one of the four major league sports.  More to the point, hockey people themselves never seem to talk about age limits.

The NHL allows 18-year olds to be drafted. Many are every year. The draft rules stipulate that if a player is drafted, but doesn’t sign a contract with the team that drafted him or sign with an agent, he retains his collegiate eligibility and can go play college hockey. This seems like a mutually beneficial arrangements for the clubs and the teams and some of the drafted 18-year olds go this route. Others head to the minor leagues which in hockey, as in baseball, is a fully mature entity integral to the player development system. Part of the debate recently about the NBA – and the idea clearly being pushed by Mark Cuban – is for basketball to develop something close to a professionalized player development system.

However, it’s not just that the NHL has real minor leagues and more forgiving draft rules. You could have both those things and still stipulate that no one can play in the NHL before they turn 19 or 20, as the NBA wants. Instead, the NHL has decreed that 18-year olds can play at the highest level. Every year, in fact, a number of 18 year olds do. While they tend – by definition – to be especially highly thought of talents, they aren’t all household names (by which I mean they’re not all named Wayne Gretzky or Sid Crosby).

But as far as I know, and I’ve looked around and asked my friends who follow the sport more closely than I now do (my excuse is that I am an Islanders fan) 18-year olds just aren’t a real topic of conversation. There are no loud roars calling for the banning of teenagers from the NHL because they are destroying the quality of play and hurting the product. A handful of super-talented teens play in the league with relatively little fanfare except insofar as their individual accomplishments warrant.

Why is that? One argument might be that the Junior leagues better prepare players for the NHL. But the draft and eligibility rules apply equally to American (and all other players). Hockey is an extremely physically demanding sport. The travel involved in the NHL is at least as extensive as the NBA’s. The season is exactly the same length, which is to say it goes on forever. There’s a ton of money involved, opening the door to all the attendant temptations that allegedly make the NBA too dangerous for the younguns.

Here’s an article from a couple of years ago I found on NHL.com, the official site of the league. It’s an account of the adjustment process facing 18-year olds in the National Hockey League. The upshot – sure there are some challenges, but the kids are alright.

It’s not NHL executives’ problem that the NBA is wrestling with this issue. And the NBA isn’t required to follow the path of the NHL (or MLB, whose age rules and player development structure more closely resemble hockey’s but in which 18-year olds essentially never make the big leagues). But there’s a puzzle here about why the discussion about player age maturity diverges so dramatically in these two sports. In 2005, when the NBA and the players association agreed to bar players directly out of high school from entering the draft beginning in 2007, Jermaine O’Neal – who had himself gone straight from high school to the NBA -  said very bluntly that racism was behind the age limit push. Because it’s seen as so damning nowadays to be accused of racism, we get these very binary debates – either you’re a racist, or you’re beyond reproach when talking about complicated social and culture matters, including those involving sports. But its possible for assumptions and discourses to be racially infused even when no one is engaged in racially malicious intent. It’s often more useful, in other words, to use the framework of  “racism without racists” for understanding how and why we talk in the ways we do.

I mean it when I say I don’t have a fully formed explanation for why age limits are such an ongoing topic of conversation in basketball, while we hear nary a peep about it in hockey. But *something* is going on that I find bothersome, to put it mildly. It’s one reason that it’s important to push people harder on their arguments for why men of legal age should be barred from a professional athletic pursuit in some sports but not others.

- Jonathan Weiler

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