Is the NBA Draft 'a Ruthless Mechanism for the Financial Exploitation of Young People's Labor'?

Is the NBA Draft 'a Ruthless Mechanism for the Financial Exploitation of Young People's Labor'?

Joel Embiid left a country deemed unfree by human rights organizations to play basketball. Is the draft by which the Cameroon-by-way-of-Kansas seven-footer gets to live his dream also a despotic institution?

Sports drafts have been decried as socialistic schemes that reward failure and punish success. Matthew Yglesias flips the script on that narrative by depicting the draft as a racket by rich owners to save payroll by restricting bidding on talent on the open market. In other words, rather than the poor getting richer despite their hardships on the hardwood the rich owners get richer at the expense of poor college students–the ones who, as first-round hopeful Shabazz Napier explained, go to bed with empty bellies at night.

Yglesias writes at Vox, “the real competition in the draft lottery is not team against team, it’s the timeless battle of labor versus capital–and the winner, as it is every year, was capital. The draft is a ruthless mechanism for the financial exploitation of young people’s labor, and everything else is merely incidental.”

Given that the first round’s first pick figures to bank about $20 million over four years, and its last pick looks to be a millionaire too, Yglesias’s workers-of-the-world-unite-you-have-nothing-to-lose-but-your-chains rhetoric comes across as less punch at the league’s ownership bourgeoisie than a punchline. Like the writer, the subjects of his article don’t exactly appear akin to a grease-stained Jimmy Higgins manning a picket line. It’s tough for the workers of the world to get worked up over the “exploitation” of men playing a kids’ game for millions.

Yglesias’s argument holds that rookies get ripped off because the NBA predetermines their wage scale and kills competition for the services of players. Theoretically, it’s tough to gainsay the logic that the draft process doesn’t amount to a free-market fantasy. But presumably such a purely free-market NBA would also discard the guaranteed contracts first-round players enjoy for their first two seasons.

The process doesn’t uniformly benefit the owners. They’re essentially bidding for unproven commodities. The ability to predict a star in a draft of college players just isn’t the same as it is in free agency among players tested in the professional ranks. Surely LeBron James deserved more, in retrospect, than his rookie contract paid him. But it’s tough to know how a player will compete against pros when he’s only competed against high school students.

Yglesias condemns the NBA Draft as “systematically subjecting every single entry-level player to sub-market wages.” Greg Oden, Chris Washburn, Michael Olowakandi, and Kwame Brown beg to differ.