Ben Simmons’ new documentary exposes the NCAA’s 1-and-done system

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We should be talking about Ben Simmons’ box scores right now. But he broke a foot in Sixers’ training camp and is out of action indefinitely.

He found himself in the news this week nonetheless thanks to a documentary on his journey to this point. Showtime will air One & Done on Friday. The 90-minute doc chronicles Simmons’ childhood in Melbourne, his family’s decision to send him to Montverde Academy near Orlando, his decision to attend LSU, and the run-up to the draft. But most notably, it reveals how absurd Simmons finds the NBA age minimum and the one-and-done system it has spawned.

Simmons and his family levy most of their scorn at the NCAA. Simmons notes several times how he is expected to treat playing basketball for LSU as a job while receiving no pay.

“That’s my job if I’m [in the NBA]. So don’t say I’m an amateur and make me take pictures and sign stuff,” Simmons says during a discussion with his family. “Go buy a No. 25 jersey. You’re going to put me on ESPN. You’re going to make hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars off one person. So I’m going off on the NCAA.”

He makes a poignant comment that, unless he can earn a degree in two semesters, going to class is “kind of pointless.” He is at LSU to make his case to become the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Attending an oceanography class instead of hitting the weights isn’t exactly a wise use of time. “I feel like I’m wasting time,” he says.

Eventually, the team decides to punish Simmons for ditching classes. (The breaking point is, ironically, a class on study habits.) This becomes a big media episode you may remember. Simmons keeps his anger at the farce off those media cameras, but reveals it for the documentary cameras.

“It really was a joke,” Simmons says. “It was a class about preparing for better study habits or skills. I’m going to the NBA next season. So why bullshit if it’s not going to help me?”

The result of the film is the most powerful case against the age minimum we’ve seen in the decade of its existence.

Here’s the problem: the age minimum isn’t going away. The NBA and its players’ union are currently negotiating a collective bargaining agreement that will take effect in July 2017 and carry on for something like seven years. The two sides are reportedly near an agreement already.

Among the details that have leaked out of the negotiations: there will be no change to the age minimum. NBA commissioner Adam Silver had argued the minimum should be bumped up a year to 20, while union boss Michele Roberts has argued the age minimum represents an unfair restriction on players’ earnings. The union’s top lawyer has even made the connection between an age minimum in a predominantly black league and racism. This, somehow, results in a stalemate: the age minimum will apparently remain at 19 in the next bargaining agreement.

LeBron James is the No. 2 official in the union, serving under his friend Chris Paul. LeBron’s agent is his close friend Rich Paul, who Simmons hired after declaring for the draft.

LeBron famously went straight from high school to the pros. He put up 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds, and four steals on the road against a playoff team in his NBA debut. He knows the age minimum is complete horseshit. He knows that a year of college ball is not necessary for the best young players in the world. He knows that two semesters of college classes won’t be the difference in how your career plays out. He didn’t need them to become the greatest player in the world. Kobe Bryant didn’t need them to have a long Hall of Fame career. Neither did Kevin Garnett.

Plenty of other players know the same damn thing, both those who skipped college before the rule was put into place and those forced to spend a year under the yoke of a multi-million dollar coach on some campus. College is right for some players. It’s absolutely wrong for others.

So where is LeBron on this? Where are the current NBA players?

High school kids and college players aren’t dues-paying union members, and every roster spot given to an 18-year-old is one taken away from a veteran. So they get the shaft when it comes time for advocacy. Roberts believes that the age minimum is absurd, and I trust Chris Paul, LeBron, and other NBA players believe the same.

But apparently getting rid of the rule isn’t worth a battle with the owners. Apparently the farce Simmons, Anthony Davis, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Jabari Parker, and Markelle Fultz are subjected to isn’t important enough for the players in power to fight back.

Silver, his predecessor David Stern and the NBA owners deserve plenty of the blame, too. Silver’s focus on protecting the age minimum is frankly disturbing and a sign that his progressive sheen is just that. (The fact that Silver remains a member of the Duke University Board of Trustees as this debate rages on is also pretty disturbing. Duke is a rich university with a multitude of revenue streams, but NBA eligibility policy heavily affects one of Duke’s biggest points of pride: its basketball program. How are NBA owners comfortable with Silver filling both roles simultaneously?)

No research has proven the age minimum achieves its stated purposes. Meanwhile, it disenfranchises 18-year-old basketball players and has created the farcical situation highlighted in the Simmons documentary. It’s a real lose-lose.

In One & Done, Simmons rains his fire on the NCAA for refusing to pay players, for forcing belief in the myth of the student-athlete, and for profiting off the unpaid labor of teenagers. All of this is fair, accurate, and worth airing out.

But Simmons ought to reserve some of that scorn for Silver, the guy whose hand he shook when he was finally drafted. And he should probably have a chat with his buddy LeBron, who is in a perfect position to drive change on this yet refuses to stand up.

At some point, the players will have only themselves to blame. NBA owners can’t implement or maintain this ridiculous rule by themselves. The players consented in 2005, they consented again in 2011, and they are preparing to consent again now. Simmons is finally a dues-paying union member. He has a voice now. He should use it.

If the players refuse to fight for those who follow, let history remember them well. LeBron’s basketball forefathers fought for the rights of free agency, fought for guaranteed contracts, fought for the right to organize. What will LeBron’s crew fight for on behalf of future generations? Anything?