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  • Pittsburgh is welcoming criticism with its decision to limit the schools to which coveted coveted forward Cameron Johnson can transfer.
By Andy Staples
May 23, 2017

When I open my PR consultancy, one of the first pieces of advice I’ll give clients is this: Avoid stupid/liar or jerk/coward scenarios.

What are those? Comedian Adam Carolla coined the phrase “stupid or liar” to describe a scenario in which someone gets caught saying something so dumb or duplicitous—or a combination of the two—that the even the best explantation results in the following question: Is this person stupid, or is this person a liar? (Example: “I didn’t rob that liquor store. I was simply cleaning my gun at the counter and the clerk handed me a bunch of money.”) A jerk/coward scenario is one in which a person pursues a self-serving course of action that is so universally unpopular that only two possible explanations exist: Either the person chose that course of action because that person is a jerk, or that person chose that course of action because that person is a sniveling coward.

Pittsburgh basketball coach Kevin Stallings apparently never received any advice about the second scenario, because he faces one now. He also has apparently not paid attention to previous, nearly identical scenarios. At present, Stallings and the Pittsburgh administration are attempting to block forward Cameron Johnson—who earned a degree at Pittsburgh in three years—from transferring to North Carolina on scholarship and playing immediately. The playing immediately part is important. Graduate transfers are allowed an exception to the NCAA’s transfer rules that permits them to play without sitting out a year. Johnson has two years of eligibility remaining because he missed most of his freshman season with a shoulder injury. Stallings and Pittsburgh want Johnson to sit out a year if he chooses the Tar Heels. If he picks a school outside the ACC, he can play right away. So he’s incentivized to choose Kentucky or Arizona, which, to be fair, also are great options.

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Why is Pittsburgh doing this? According to a statement released by the school, this is why:

“We have remained consistent with our athletic department policy, within NCAA legislation, stipulating student-athletes are restricted from transferring to institutions within the Atlantic Coast Conference and those on our schedule next season,” assistant athletics director for media relations Matt Plizga wrote in the statement. "Cameron Johnson and his father were informed of our policy as well as the appeals process when they elected to seek transfer. They went through our transfer appeals process and were granted permission to contact ACC school however, the committee upheld the policy to limit immediate eligibility within the conference. 

"If Cameron were to transfer within the ACC, he would be eligible to receive financial aid immediately but would have to sit out a year of competition due to standard NCAA transfer regulations. Throughout this process, we have remained consistent to our department policy and we will continue to do so.”

Translation: “We’re either jerks who don’t want this guy to have all the choices he should have, or we’re cowards because we’re afraid to play him with Roy Williams coaching him. You decide.”

Note the phrase “our athletic department policy.” That doesn’t say “NCAA rule.” It doesn’t say “ACC rule.” Pitt isn’t bound by a higher authority here. This is a Pitt policy, and it can be changed today if Stallings and his administration decide to end this particular jerk/coward scenario.

What’s funny about this is Stallings and Pittsburgh officials should already know this story only ends one of two ways: Either they relent and let Johnson go free and clear or they look like jerks/cowards. A far better coach than Stallings went through this last year and eventually made the wise choice.

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Alabama football coach Nick Saban initially wanted to keep safety Maurice Smith from transferring to Georgia as a graduate student and playing immediately. Saban used an SEC policy as his shield, but as soon as it became clear to Saban that the SEC wasn’t about to take the PR hit it would get for enforcing a bad policy, Saban relented and let Smith go to Athens. Saban wasn’t willing to keep fighting a fight that could only make him look terrible. So he did what every coach in this situation should do in the first place. It certainly didn’t hurt the Crimson Tide. Alabama won the SEC and played for the national title. Georgia went 8-5 and won the Liberty Bowl. The world kept spinning.

Once a player graduates from a school, that school should have no further claim if that player wants to transfer. Conversely, once a player graduates, the coach should be allowed to cut that player loose if another player would fill the scholarship better*. They have completed their business together, and while they should be able to continue the relationship assuming more eligibility—and likely will in most cases—this feels like a natural, common-sense point at which the relationship could be severed by either party.

*This is where I break ranks with most of the others who would like to see the NCAA’s transfer rules reformed. What’s good for the grad should also be good for the coach.

Icon Sportswire via AP Images

There is no logical argument that Johnson owes anything to Pittsburgh in this case. He did what was asked of him on the court and in the classroom. He fulfilled his end of the bargain. There is a more compelling argument to be made that Pittsburgh has not held up its end of the bargain. Johnson signed to play for coach Jamie Dixon. When Dixon bolted for TCU, Pittsburgh hired the guy who was about to be fired by Vanderbilt. Did then-AD Scott Barnes hire the best coach available for the job? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps Barnes didn’t beat the bushes very hard because he was about to make a (professionally) parallel-at-best move to Oregon State. 

Some will make the argument that making such transfers easier is anti-competitive. Maybe. But blocking them is simply un-American. The foundation of our economic system is that everyone should be allowed to work their way into the best possible situation. Johnson didn’t get recruited by North Carolina out of high school. That’s not Johnson’s fault. But now he has the chance to play there. We heard some of the same arguments when Eastern Washington quarterback Vernon Adams graduated and left to play at Oregon. They were silly then, too. Most of the coaches are trying to work their way up the ladder. Why not afford that same freedom to the (relatively) small number of college graduates trying to take advantage of this rule?

It would be nice if the schools would help their coaches and ADs avoid public ridicule by changing the NCAA’s rules and eliminating the possibility for these jerk/coward scenarios that seem to pop up every year. Here’s how the transfer rules should work. They would take up 77 words in the NCAA manual, and they’d work for players and schools.

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Undergraduates: All undergraduate transfers must sit out one year unless their previous school signs a waiver allowing them to play immediately. No school may block an athlete from receiving financial aid at another school.

Graduates: All graduates are allowed a one-time exception that allows them to transfer and play immediately. No school may block an athlete from receiving financial aid at another school, but a school may revoke the scholarship of a player who has graduated.

That’s it. Those are the only transfer rules the NCAA needs. The one-year restriction on undergraduates would keep the number of transfers down, and the allowance to cut underperforming graduates would give coaches some roster flexibility.

The coaches also would get spared the damage to their reputations when they dive headfirst into a jerk/coward scenario. They can’t seem to help themselves on this front, so perhaps someone needs to take away the option. They’ll understand. Thanks to the current NCAA rules, they know all about taking away options.

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