Column: Nothing to do with race

By Josh Purse

It’s been a rough season for Jermaine O’Neal. First, there was the brawl. And the 15-game suspension that resulted. Then there was the sprained shoulder that ended his season.

That’s a recipe for one frustrated dude.

Let’s hope, then, that it was just frustration that triggered O’Neal’s recent comments about the NBA’s proposed increase in age limit from 18 to 20.

“As a black guy, you kind of think (race) is the reason why it’s coming up,” O’Neal said. “You don’t hear about it in baseball or hockey. To say you have to be 20, 21 to get in the league, it’s unconstitutional. If I can go to the U.S. Army and fight the war at 18, why can’t you play basketball for 48 minutes?”

Somewhere in that statement, O’Neal makes some valid points.

But it sure is tough to get past that first line.

He was wrong to say the new age limit would be, in any way, a racist act. It would not.

Yes, practically all the players that have entered the NBA before turning 20 have been African-American.

Yes, raising the age limit would inhibit black players – along with everyone else – from entering the league straight out of high school.

But come on, Jermaine, those facts certainly do not make a racist policy.

Commissioner David Stern, the most obvious proponent of the change, is a Caucasian male. He has never shown himself to be racist. He has, however, shown himself to be an astute businessman worried about protecting the financial interests of his league.

As usual in this country, the proposed change is all about the dolla’ dolla’ bills. In America and the NBA, money trumps just about everything – race included.

Stern wants to make sure there is not an enormous influx of high school players that are drafted purely on potential, players who sit on the bench for years and dilute the NBA’s product.

He also likes the idea of getting two years worth of free publicity for the players who will eventually come into the league and become superstars.

Stern has been garnering support among current players – Grant Hill and Shane Battier, to name a couple. They are in favor of the increased age limit because they say they don’t like seeing veteran players squeezed out of the league by teenagers who come in and ride the pine for a few years while “growing up.”

Hill and Battier are both black. It’s hard to believe they would support a racist policy.

Lost in all of this talk about racism is that I actually agree with O’Neal on most points. I think teens should not have to wait two years if they are ready right away.

It’s almost too obvious to talk about the success of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudamire. But, man, those three guys make quite a case for kids at least having the option to turn pro before ever blowing out 20 candles on a birthday cake.

There’s always the argument that kids should go to college to develop their minds and their games. Some kids forfeit their college eligibility and are either not drafted (see Taj McDavid) or are but can’t handle the pressures of NBA life (see Leon Smith).

These arguments made me think twice, if not more. In fact, when it comes to the age limit issue, I have flip-flopped more than Nadia Comaneci in a floor routine. JENGA towers, one move away from collapsing, have swayed less than I have.

But let’s get real. With all the scouts and talent evaluators, a kid should be able to get a good read on whether he’ll be drafted. And if he is, he has every opportunity to surround himself with people that can help him deal with the strain of the first few years in the league.

If a player like James is ready to step into the league at 18, he should certainly be allowed to do so.

I think that’s what O’Neal was trying to say.

To be sure, let’s set this issue straight one last time.

Changing the NBA age limit is definitely wrong but definitely not racist.