Oregon Hoops

AAU Age Rules:  Unintended Consequences?


In the old days, long before helicopter parents lost their collective minds, kids were rarely held back in school.  To hold a child back a grade was a last resort, reserved for extreme academic or social difficulties.  Somewhere along the way and seemingly escalating over the past decade, parents are increasingly living vicariously through their kids and competing with rival parents through youth sports, often to the detriment of the children.


Within this context, sports' governing bodies must be attuned to fostering environments that promote the development and well being of children, in part by establishing and maintaining rules that minimize the potential damage from overzealous coaches, program directors and parents.


During the halcyon days, one could make rational arguments for something like the current AAU basketball age rules.  School officials, child psychologists, and pediatricians could argue that a child already struggling academically and socially would benefit most from playing basketball with their revised grade and shouldn't be punished further by having to play with older grades.  But if you've spent any time at all at a competitive youth basketball event, you know deep in your gut that the vast majority of holdbacks and home-schooled kids are in that position for athletic, not academic or social purposes.  It would be nice to have the data to support the claim, but let's apply some common sense to the discussion.


First, let's agree that in no way can the AAU age rules be designed for fair competition.  By establishing a 24-month window for eligibility, the rules insure you will see 8 year olds competing against 10 year olds, and 12 year olds competing against 14 year olds with muscles and mustaches.  That's simply not fair.


We must presume then that the eligibility requirements were designed with good intentions to protect kids being held back for legitimate reasons.  Unfortunately, we've reached a tipping point where the rules are doing more harm than good, now creating an uneven playing field, risking injury, and creating all sorts of arguments and disputes among parents, program directors and players.  The grade-based (as opposed to age-based) system has created a toxic environment that is not conducive to healthy competition.


Further, if being held back in school was considered a potential difficulty or hardship for children in the first place, why have a set of rules that motivates precisely this behavior from parents?  Malcolm Gladwell probably didn't intend to contribute to the problem with his book Outliers.  But he reinforced what many suspected:  that being a little older helps A LOT.


Here at Oregon Hoops, we submit that the majority of parent and program disputes at a given event are in fact being caused by and/or exacerbated by the AAU’s age window.  Any kid who seems a little too tall, a bit too mature, or even simply too good is cast under suspicion--yes, often with good reason.  But what about the kids who are simply tall and talented?  Is it fair for them to go through their childhood carrying a birth certificate to prove themselves?  We have seen so many arguments and accusations at AAU/club events this year, almost all of them involving the questioning of age and eligibility.


To remove the distorted motivations and incentives, the AAU must convert to an age-based system.   If you're 9 or under by a simple cutoff date, you can play with kids who are also 9 and under.  Simple as that.  Who cares what grade you're in?  Some kids are old for their grade, some are young, some are held back and some are not.  But it doesn't matter in sports designed for age-based participation.  You play with your physical and chronological peers--no other artificial metrics required.


Let's take a specific example comparing baseball to basketball to see how extreme the current AAU basketball eligibility rules are in context.  Most 3rd graders begin the school year at 8 years old and will turn 9 at some point during 3rd grade.  In Oregon, if you play Cal Ripken baseball, this means to play on a 9u (generally 3rd grade) team, you can't turn 10 before May 1 of that year.  Anyone who turns 10 before May 1 would then play in the 10u division.


Now let's look at an AAU basketball 3rd grade division.  An athlete can play 3rd grade basketball so long as they haven't turned 11(!) prior to August 31.  And don't get us started on the next part of the rule.  If you're in 4th grade and want to play down, you can't be older than 10 by the same August cut-off date.  So, according to the AAU, it's a bigger advantage to be a 9 year-old 4th grader than it is to be a 10 year-old 3rd grader?  In what universe?


It’s bad enough that the AAU allows kids who are nearly two years older to play based on grade exceptions.  From society's perspective, if parents are tempted to hold kids back for athletic reasons, do we really want the second part of these eligibility requirements that also tell younger than average players that you can't play with your own age, instead you need to be held back a grade if you want to play with your age-based peers?


Don't forget that in cases of public school athletes, the taxpayers are footing the bill for an extra year of schooling to help individual players achieve an athletic advantage.  Given all these factors, let's urge the AAU to rethink their eligibility requirements.  The club movement has grown to a point where many sports now exist primarily outside the school setting, making a player's grade increasingly irrelevant.  The outcome of sports should not be based on how well parents, parents and coaches have worked the system.  Games should be decided by players competing against kids their own age, period.   And the criteria should be simple:  how old are you?  Pick a cutoff date and let’s have a fair competition.  Tighten the age window down to a year, because two years is absurd.  The current rules are damaging to kids and create unneeded controversy that harms the game.


The time has come.  Please encourage the AAU to fix this now.


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*If you have the stomach for it, read internet message board comments surrounding any AAU age dispute.  Here’s an example highlighting the toxic environment resulting from the 24-month age window:




**Finally, please visit Supporters of Fair AAU Youth Basketball Eligibility Age Rules: