Multiple hurdles remain before NCAA can relax transfer rules for revenue sports


Coaches have called it “free agency.” Reformers call it much-needed change. Either way, the NCAA is looking good for once as it considers one-time transfers without restrictions for all athletes in all sports.

The association on Tuesday called such a rule adjustment a “potential change” as it claims to be merely seeking “feedback” at this time. In reality, the speed at which this discussion has progressed is rocking the college athletics world. That an NCAA working group is considering submitting a recommendation as soon as April suggests a sea change.

“I think this surprised a lot of people,” said Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. “There was some kind of epiphany that happened.”

Basically, if the legislation goes through, athletes would have unprecedented freedom in transferring between schools. Previously, athletes in football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and hockey had to sit out a “year in residence” when transferring as an undergraduate in order to supposedly adjust academically.

No more. This move will allow student-athletes to be more like plain, old students. Nationally, more than a one third of undergraduate students transfer at least once.

Imagine a disgruntled five-star freshman dissatisfied with his dorm accommodations leaving after a season for a softer bed. Imagine two of the biggest dates on the college football calendar becoming the end of spring practice and end of fall camp. That’s when a potential glut of quarterbacks (or wide receivers or running backs or defensive backs) would hit the market after losing position battles.

Basically, imagine the transfer portal times 10.

It’s all on the table. It’s also a potential mess. The Big Ten originally proposed one-time transfer legislation last fall. On Monday, the ACC publicly supported the concept. Momentum seems to be pushing the issue toward adoption. The three remaining Power Five conferences (Big 12, SEC, Pac-12) were expected to discuss the proposal at their respective spring meetings.

“That’s going to happen, man,” a former member of the NCAA Council, who did not want to be identified, said. “I’ve been hearing murmurs. It seems unstoppable now.”

If the adjusted rule passes, all players in all sports will be allowed to transfer once in their careers as undergraduates without sitting out. It came time to admit the athletes in those five aforementioned “revenue” sports were being treated unfairly. If academic achievement was the rationale for making them sit out, that rationale was hypocritical.

In the 20 or so other sports — volleyball, soccer, etc. — athletes have been allowed to transfer without sitting out. Part of the new rationale for liberalizing transfer rule: A lawsuit was just waiting to be filed due to that inequity. That’s NCAA athletics these days.

“Every rationale for making transferring players sit out a year has been thoroughly discredited, leaving only a few millionaire head coaches to whine about roster management,” said attorney Tom Mars. “This policy change is long overdue.”

Mars developed a cottage industry over the past couple years representing athletes seeking waivers from the NCAA to elude that year in residence.

“Men’s basketball coaches have long held concerns about the potential academic and competitive repercussions of de facto ‘free agency’ in college basketball,” said Jim Haney, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. “… Nonetheless, I agree with the working group that the current subjective nature of the transfer waiver model is unsustainable, and that a more uniform process is needed.”

The transfer rules could be changed by the start of the 2020-21 academic year. That means, among the major sports, football players would be first up to sample the new freedom in-season.

The chair of the working group said potential proposals are a done deal. Conferences will still have to determine their own policies regarding athletes transferring within their respective leagues.  

“It’s got a ways to go,” said Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the MAC and chair of that working group.

But the fact the issue has gotten this far, less than a year since the Big Ten raised the concept, is amazing in the sluggish world of NCAA legislation.

The transfer issue had become so complicated — and the system so glutted — that the NCAA Board of Directors put a moratorium on any transfer legislation in October.

Last month, CBS Sports reported the Big Ten had developed its transfer proposal. Less than three weeks later came the NCAA press release on Tuesday.

One source close to the process speculated that the NCAA could be staging a legislative public relations gala at its next convention set for January 2021 in Washington, D.C. In the nation’s seat of power, in front of the nation’s legislators — some of whom seek to regulate the association — the NCAA could trot out liberalized transfer rules and name, image and likeness legislation.

Still, while this is a huge step for the NCAA, there are a number of issues and hurdles that need to be considered before transfer legislation can be passed.

Transfer releases

As part of the proposed legislation outlined by the NCAA, any athlete who wishes to would need to get a release from their initial school. That’s where this immediately gets complicated.

The transfer portal was created in October 2018 as a one-stop shop so athletes in revenue sports would no longer have to get such releases. That was an answer to the chronic “blocking” of transfers to certain institutions — occasionally in the dozens — by coaches and athletic directors.

However, while athletes in those 20 non-revenue sports mentioned above cannot be blocked from transferring, their schools can keep them from being granted immediate eligibility. That would now go for all sports — including football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and hockey. In that sense, freedom in those sports would potentially get limited.

It was mentioned to Steinbrecher that coaches would potentially have that power to “block” eligibility, despite the transfer portal being instituted to ensure transfer destinations were not blocked. He suggested public shaming may now keep those coaches from flexing on transferring athletes.

“What practical experience has shown us is that [blocking in minor sports] has occurred very, very, very, very few times,” Steinbrecher said. “There will end up being some sort of review process if that does occur. If past history is any judge, the reason we ended up with the change on the transfer portal was the dissatisfaction by the practitioners that you could block somebody. I think the noise around that would make it unlikely.”

Maybe. Last May, as the portal turned seven months old, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said, “My biggest problem with the portal is that it gives kids an easy way out. I know the devil’s advocate of players’ rights and they should be able to go wherever they want to go. But I’m telling you, no normal parent would say, ‘At the first sign of trouble, I want my son to run.'”

Roster management

This is likely the biggest issue for coaches. In any program, stability is valued above all else. Several sources speculated that teams that lose an overabundance of transfers would have to be made whole, perhaps in the form of relief on the NCAA’s annual 25-recruit “hard cap” for football scholarships.

Kansas AD Jeff Long has suggested a 50-man cumulative limit over two seasons that could be applied unevenly. In other words, a school below the 85-scholarship limit in football could sign 35 players one year and 15 the next for a total of 50.

At first glance, the hardest hit programs may be in FCS or at the bottom of Power Five. Coaches at that level have long been concerned their rosters could be raided by larger more prestigious programs.

Now that would seemingly become easier.

Academic Progress Rate

APR was adopted in 2004 as a way to measure a program’s four-year rolling average of athletes’ progress toward a degree. If programs don’t achieve a 930 APR (equivalent to a 50 percent graduation rate), they are subject to scholarship penalties, even ineligibility for postseason play.

Schools lose APR points when players transfer. A football program that loses 20 transfers would be crippled not only competitively but be in dangers of APR penalties.

“That’s worth examining,” Steinbrecher said. “If a student-athlete leaves of their own volition, should the school that they left be held academically accountable?”

Tampering

With enhanced transfer freedom, tampering will become even more of an issue with coaches. Luring athletes at other schools to transfer is already prohibited but known to occur.

“We’re going to have some cultural shifts in that,” Steinbrecher said. “People are going to have to police themselves to some extent. I view it as an ethical issue. The coaches are going to have to have some discussions on that.”

Tampering at its core is almost impossible to prevent. A common scenario: A coach doesn’t call the athlete directly. He instead calls the high school coach or parents to relay a message. Without direct contact, the athlete at least knows he/she is coveted elsewhere.

Steinbrecher was right. Maybe this does have a ways to go.

“Somehow, we’ll figure out a way to make it work,” he said.





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