Drafts are indefensible, unless you’re a team owner

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The NBA Draft lottery occurred earlier this week, and with it came the usual fanfare. In addition, there was also criticism of the NBA Draft, and sports drafts in general, from various commentators like Bomani Jones and Joe Sheehan, whose Twitter thoughts on the matter I’ll share below:


“Just a reminder that Zion Williamson should get to pick where he works, like the rest of us do, rather than have his employer picked for him and his salary dictated to him. Sports drafts are indefensible.”

Jones, in response to Sheehan:

“I say this every year and people act like it’s the craziest thing ever. Drafts are so baked into sports that people can’t even consider the idea they are fundamentally unfair.”

Sheehan is wrong about one thing: drafts are defensible, so long as you happen to be working in or for one of the leagues operating one. As Bomani Jones implies, fans are brainwashed into thinking drafts are necessary, when they very much are not. Drafts, like pretty much every other policy put forward by owners in sports leagues, exist in order to control labor and limit their earnings. In a league with a salary cap like the NBA, this becomes even more obvious: 29 of the NBA’s 30 teams spent the 2018-2019 season right below or right over the $109 million salary cap (the latter allowed by a series of complicated exemptions for additional spending). No one in the NBA can hoard talent in the absence of a draft, as roster limitations, the salary cap, and the lack of an organized minor league that’s comparable to what Major League Baseball has in play make that impossible.

In short, no one is really outspending anyone else, and the players would go where they want within this system assuming interest is mutual and there is roster space to make it happen. What purpose does the NBA Draft serve, then, that couldn’t be served instead by amateurs transitioning into the league through free agency? Hell, removing the draft would also inhibit tanking, since teams would have to try in order to entice the best available talents. Or, take the case of Duke star Zion Williamson, presumed first-overall pick in this year’s draft. If he really wanted to go to the Knicks that bad, then the Knicks could have signed him instead of hoping the ping pong balls bounced in their favor. What’s so bad about that?

Well, player choice, if we’re talking from the perspective of the decision makers in each league, and the fact that bidding wars would be how a given player’s career started: these are precisely why drafts were implemented in the first place. It’s why MLB wants to convert from international free agency to an international draft, and the same greed that drives these decisions is also how we ended up with capped budgets for draft picks and international free agents in that league, too. They want — and have received — fewer bidding wars, fewer options for players, more acquiescence to whatever limited offer is presented. In a word, control.

So, the draft is pointless in the NBA in terms of serving a master other than ownership, in large part thanks to the salary cap structure in place. What about in MLB, where the luxury tax is only acting as a cap, but isn’t officially one, as last year’s (and this year’s) Red Sox reminded everyone? The draft still isn’t necessary there, either. In the same way not every international free agent was going to pull in a signing bonus like Yoan Moncada’s $31.5 million deal with Boston (that actually cost the club twice that due to budget overage penalties), not every amateur player would rake in tens of millions from day one. One would be too many for these owners, though, as all of their actions in every facet of potential players’ earnings over the last… uh, century-plus should tell you.

Imagine if Bryce Harper, with all of his potential, had been available for any team to bid on the moment he finished in high school. He would have been worth tens and tens and tens of millions before he ever stepped foot on an MLB field. Imagine the leverage any amateur free agent could have with, say, the Marlins, any time Miami came calling. Imagine how few, if any, teams would be able to pull off loading their roster with minimum salary players if many of the top talents were signing MLB deals from the start, or were on minor-league deals that paid out a hefty sum due to the initial agreement that brought them into the organization in the first place. Teams would have to try, and if there were ownership groups that couldn’t afford to exist in this landscape, well, they should sell to someone who doesn’t mind the cost, then. Owning a baseball team isn’t some God-given right for rich assholes, even if these supposed free-market lovers believe otherwise. Small-market teams, a concept that mostly exists to weaken the negotiating and earning power of the players, would be able to afford plenty of players, be they amateurs or otherwise. They’d just have to sign them while working in a leveled negotiating field.

There would be fewer players dealing with poverty-level wages in the minors, fewer players in a position where they felt they had to say yes to a team-friendly extension instead of attempting to bet on themselves, and free agents as we know them to exist today would be more attractive again thanks to the uncertainty surrounding an unproven player class that isn’t as cheap or without financial risk as it once was.

Obviously, MLB doesn’t want any of this to happen. So, the draft was instituted, and it’ll keep right on existing, with MLB trying to institute another one for international signings to boot. None of their actions make the existence of a sports draft “defensible,” however: drafts are a tool for controlling the movement and earnings of labor, and they’re as immoral in sports as they are unnecessary for sport to exist and thrive.

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