March Madness brings basketball’s unjust laws to light


It is a question that has both sparked and squashed revolutions; that has both inspired overdue societal change and been used as justification for senseless crimes:

If a law is unjust, should we still obey it?

On the smaller, less-significant stage that is sports, this dilemma surfaces just about every day from game to game, league to league, nation to nation. Whether it’s celebrating a touchdown, stealing a catcher’s sign, taking money or taking steroids, athletes live in a world where many of the rules seem made to be broken.

And it’s during this time of year, March Madness, that some of the more polarizing rules governing the game of basketball are brought under a spotlight.

This is the month in America when the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments dominate our bandwidth. It’s also the month when the next NBA draft class starts coming into focus, and when most high school basketball state championships are determined. Which means March is also when we revisit the debate over paying college athletes, re-evaluate the NBA’s age minimum, and hear a fresh batch of complaints about high school hoop programs building powerhouses illegally.

As SLAM editor-in-chief Ben Osborne wrote in the magazine’s current issue, “March is basketball’s time in the sun … Even if it takes the corrupt college game to help with the spotlight, so be it.”

How corrupt? While you’re watching this year’s NCAA tournament action, think about all of the people and entities that make money off of college basketball’s annual spectacle: the universities, the administrators, the coaches, the sneaker companies, the media, the advertisers, the gamblers, the bookies, the arenas that host the games, the local businesses, the restaurants and sports bars that draw bigger crowds while showing the games.

Then think about the actual college basketball players, who get nothing out of the deal beyond some fleeting fame and a scholarship. (And not all of them are getting scholarships, by the way.) People will quickly argue that a college scholarship is plenty compensation, but look at it this way: College athletes are the performers in a show that generates millions of dollars nationwide. It’s like a Broadway play on a much larger stage. Now do you believe the actors in a wildly successful and profitable Broadway play should be content with only getting room and board and a letter of recommendation provided by the theater?

Why can’t college athletes profit from the same system that makes so much profit off of their labor and talent? Because the rules say so.

In the NBA, an internal movement is underway to push the league’s age minimum from 19 to 20. The layers of self-interest and false justifications for amending this already-unfair rule can fill another column entirely — long story short, this is less about looking out for the welfare of young athletes and more about bringing players into the league when they’re more marketable — but the bottom line is that something is not right when 18 is old enough to join the military, but not old enough to play professional basketball.

Why can’t a legal adult play in the NBA even when he’s skilled enough to make a roster? Because the rules say so.

In the state of Washington, two public city high schools from my Seattle hometown — Garfield and Rainier Beach — recently won boys basketball state titles in their respective classifications. Both teams featured a handful of transfer students on their rosters, which led to a loud segment of fans and media (and surely some opposing coaches behind the scenes) crediting the Bulldogs’ and Vikings’ success to nothing more than illegal recruiting and bending (if not breaking) transfer regulations.

The rules in Washington say a high school student cannot transfer to another school if the only reason is “athletic” — e.g. wanting more playing time, wanting to play for a better team, etc. — and that public-school students must live within the accepted radius of addresses for their high school.

Why are students with athletic talent prevented from making the same transfers as any other student? Why are private schools allowed to recruit athletes from any neighborhood, but public schools can’t? Because the rules say so.

What, then, are we to do when the rules are wrong?

As Muslims, we are encouraged to abide by the laws of the land. At the same time, blind patriotism without regard for the fairness of the laws is discouraged. Research, rational thought and independent decision making are highly valued in Islam.

The Quran says: “O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result.” (4:59)

Obey those in authority among you … and if you disagree with their leadership, refer it to Allah. In other words, pray. Talk to your Creator. In Islam, you don’t need a middle-man or an advocate to talk to God; prayer is your direct connection. Bring Him your concerns. And more importantly, listen to His answer. You’ll hear it in your heart.

Before I was a praying man, I personally disagreed with the aforementioned rules that governed certain elements of basketball.

I felt college athletes in money-generating sports deserved a piece of the lucrative pie they help create. But instead of an official pay-for-play system that would be almost impossible to implement equitably, I felt the NCAA should simply eliminate (or at least relax) its rules that prevent athletes from accepting gifts and endorsements. If a local car dealership wants to pay Jabari Parker and put him in a commercial, let them. If a generous booster wants to give Andrew Wiggins $200 because he just feels like it, what’s the problem? If “regular” college students face no restrictions as far as their legal means of income, why are athletes treated differently?

I felt the NBA should be open to anyone — even if they’re younger than 18 — who is good enough to play at that level. And if they’re not quite good enough yet, NBA teams should still be allowed to draft them and put them in the minor leagues. If it’s acceptable for baseball and hockey, it should be acceptable for basketball.

I felt there was nothing wrong with a public high school sports program recruiting athletes, or with a parent sending their child to whatever school they want for whatever reason they want. If no one seems to mind when talented teenage musicians or actors transfer schools to join a better band or a better drama program, why is it wrong for an athlete to transfer schools to showcase their talent on a bigger, better stage?

After I started praying and referred my disagreements with these rules to Allah, I felt no change in my heart. No introduction of doubt that these rules were OK to break. The rules are simply unjust.

You may have noticed the theme of double standards at work here. And if you’re familiar with the hypocrisies of professional, college and high school sports, you should be well aware that racial and economic inequity in our society has a major influence on these double standards.

The Prophet Muhammad said: “Whoever among you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand (by taking action); if he cannot, then with his tongue (by speaking out); and if he cannot, then with his heart (by hating it and feeling that it is wrong).” (Hadith)

It is often those are who most privileged — and those who are most protected by the rules and laws — whose loudest response to an unfair, unjust rule is simply, “But it’s the RULE!” That’s not good enough. If we blindly abided by the rules just because they were written down, slavery would still be legal and interracial marriage would still be illegal in America.

Not all rules and laws are made to be broken. But all rules and laws should be able to hold up against critical analysis, moral challenges and common sense.

If they can’t, then it’s time to rewrite the rulebook.

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