NBA Commish Wades Into Debate Over Paying College Players

New NBA commissioner Adam Silver made news by suggesting the league's willingness to pay college basketball players. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis explains what might mean for professionals and students.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The new commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver, has been on the job for two months now. His predecessor, David Stern, held the job for 30 years, but Silver is starting to make his mark. This week, he made news when he said the league would be willing to help pay college basketball players. Sports writer Stefan Fatsis joins us now, as he does most Friday. Hey there, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: Okay. So this issue of whether college athletes should share in the billions of dollar of revenue generated by big sports, obviously, a hot topic. Explain what Adam Silver had to say.

FATSIS: Well, according to ESPN, Silver said that the NBA would be willing to help subsidize college basketball players. He was careful to say he didn't mean by paying salaries, but instead by covering the gap between what athletes receive in scholarship payments and their actual costs. Silver cited the comments of Shabazz Napier, the University of Connecticut guard who, at the Final Four, said that he sometimes went to bed hungry because he didn't have enough money to buy food at school.

CORNISH: But help us understand the NBA's interest in this. It's not a salary. What's this kind of like benevolent funding idea?

FATSIS: Well, the NBA currently has an age limit to enter its draft. You have to be 19 years old and at least one year out of high school. And that's why we've seen this parade of so-called one and done college players. Adam Silver has been very clear that he wants to raise the age limit to 20. Delaying entry, theoretically, means the teams get more experienced players who presumably will be more useful early on in their NBA careers before they hit free agency.

The funny thing is that studies of NBA drafts show that that's really not the case, but the NBA wants it. And doing something like providing a subsidy and disability insurance could be a chip to negotiate a higher age limit with the NBA players union, though the league would have to bring in the NCAA into the talks.

CORNISH: Now Commissioner Silver also made news when he talked about this idea of putting advertisements on NBA uniforms.

FATSIS: Yeah, he was on the sportscaster Dan Patrick's radio show and he basically said he doesn't see it as a big deal because he spent much of his career promoting the NBA overseas, where ads on jerseys, of course, are commonplace. We're seeing more of it in the United States, in the women's NBA and Major League Soccer. And Silver couched the inevitability of jersey ads in business terms.

He said, in this day and age of non-live programming where people are using their DVR and skipping through commercials, it's just that much more of an opportunity for our sponsors to get that much closer to the game. Now, there's something about an ad-free jersey, except for the ad for the team, of course, but that's going to change. The question is which major sport - basketball, football, baseball - does it first.

CORNISH: All right. Let's talk a little bit about basketball, okay, Stefan. NBA regular season is winding down and much is being written about the greatness not of Lebron James, but of player Kevin Durant.

FATSIS: Yeah, Durant's the Oklahoma City Thunder's do-it-all six-foot-nine forward with the seven-foot wingspan. He's having a crazy season. Even Lebron said this week that he'd be thrilled if Durant won the league's MVP award. And here's the main crazy stat. Durant scored more than 25 points in 41 consecutive games. That's the third best ever in the NBA. No one's likely to catch Wilt Chamberlain's 80 in a row, but Durant did pass Michael Jordan's 40.

The streak ended this week, only because the Thunder blew out Sacramento and Durant didn't even play in the fourth quarter. He said he was glad the streak was done so people could focus on the team. He's a very team guy.

CORNISH: And another thing people were talking about, a team that was doing well and then kind of fell apart, the Indiana Pacers.

FATSIS: Yeah, they led the defending champion Miami Heat in the standings pretty much all season and now they are falling apart. The Pacers have lost seven of their last 10 games. Their offense has been anemic. Their locker room has been in turmoil but they still lead Miami by a half game in the battle for the top seed and home court advantage in the Eastern Conference in the playoffs. They two teams play tonight.

CORNISH: Stefan, thanks for the update.

FATSIS: Sure, Audie, thanks.

CORNISH: Stefan Fatsis, he joins us on Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can also hear him on Slate.com's sport podcast "Hang Up and Listen."

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