The NCAA Needs a Universal One-Time Transfer Rule—Just Not Right Now

In these uncertain times, kicking the can down the road for future change was actually a smart move.
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JT Daniels put his name in the NCAA transfer portal last month, making the onetime starting USC quarterback the hottest commodity on the college football market. Undoubtedly, he was picturing himself as some other FBS program’s starter in the fall (if there is a fall season). There were plenty of ardent potential suitors.

But what looked like a fast track to potential stardom elsewhere ran into an NCAA roadblock this week—and not just for Daniels. For every football and basketball player in the transfer portal.

Before the issue is officially voted on this month by the Division I Council, the NCAA’s various deliberative bodies seemingly put a hold on legislation that would lead to the creation of a uniform transfer policy that granted immediate eligibility. Its Board of Directors recommended against allowing all D-I athletes a one-time transfer without sitting out a year at their new school "at this time."

That’s bad news for Daniels and others who were judging the winds of change and banking on that legislation going through. Yet it’s still a sign of progress—more progress than many had envisioned—toward breakthrough freedom of movement for athletes in the years to come. Just not right now, in the midst of a pandemic.

USC football JT Daniels transfer news

Kicking the can down the road is rarely a prudent decision-making strategy, but that was the smart thing for the NCAA to do at the moment. A sea change in the rules on the fly this spring is not something most schools are prepared to deal with adequately, especially in the transfer department. There is too much upheaval and uncertainty already. As U.S. Rep Donna Shalala told my colleague Ross Dellenger, “California says they might not hold athletics this fall. What if 35 players transfer from USC to go east?"

Thus Daniels likely is faced with two options: stay at USC or transfer and sit out. Neither are what he probably wanted, but neither are terrible. Like every other college student in America, his 2020 spring hasn’t worked out the way he hoped it would.

When the time is appropriate—like later this calendar year, or January 2021—the NCAA can move from the smart decision of the moment to the overall right thing to do. They can adopt uniform transfer rules for every athlete in every sport, and that uniform rule should allow those athletes a one-time transfer with immediate eligibility.

Currently, there are five Division I sports that require transfers to sit out a season: football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, baseball and men’s ice hockey. The rest of them allow transfers to go where they want, when they want, and be eligible to play.

This is, of course, a classic NCAA incongruity. We have a rule that applies to some athletes and not others. It is assuredly not coincidental that the sports prohibiting immediate eligibility are the ones that produce the most revenue and have the most lucrative professional opportunities for athletes after college. Where the money flows, the freedom of movement stops and the institutional control increases.

But is there a single good reason why dozens of sports function within an instant-eligibility transfer model, and five cannot? Why is Michigan State coach Tom Izzo declaring the end of college basketball civilization as we know it if the one-time transfer rule is passed, while members of the Spartans’ cross country, field hockey, golf, gymnastics, rowing, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and wrestling teams are coming and going without restraint?

A little consistency isn’t too much to ask. And neither is consistency that empowers the athletes instead of the schools.

The eternal talking point is equal opportunities for athletes and regular students alike. That was a driving force behind the landmark move toward name, image and likeness legislation that gained traction this week — if a cellist on campus can make money for that talent, why can’t an athlete? Well, regular students aren’t required to sit out a year when they move from one college to another. Nobody is sending the average history major to a waiver committee to judge whether he can still study history next semester at State after leaving Tech.

Coaches, as we all know, certainly are not required to sit out, either. Basketball coach Steve Forbes just left East Tennessee State for Wake Forest—a great hire by the Demon Deacons and a no-brainer move for Forbes. He was hired Thursday and started work Thursday. But Forbes’s players would need a waiver from the NCAA to follow him and play at Wake, and Wake players wishing to move on would be under similar constraints.

Armed with a clever enough lawyer, those players might be able to mount a case and finagle a waiver for immediate eligibility. Sometimes the wavier claims are legitimate, and sometimes they are trumped-up excuses. It’s been the NCAA’s job to distinguish between them, and results—both waivers approved and denied—have routinely generated outrage.

With a one-time transfer rule in place, the lawyering would be all but removed from the process. Player chooses to move from School A to School B, it happens, he/she plays, everyone deals with it. If a player wants to transfer a second time, save the legal fees and sob stories and sit out a year.

All that said, there is a transfer epidemic in college athletics. Basketball especially has become a transient sport. And there probably would be a spike to even greater levels if/when this rule passes.

But like every other potential change that lessens the control of the schools over the athletes, the prophesied disaster is unlikely to happen. Especially if the rule requires sitting out when an athlete transfers a second time. Everyone will survive.

There is evidence that transferring is at cross purposes with graduating. Credits get lost along the way, majors are dumbed down to enhance eligibility, etc. Those are not insignificant concerns. But it smacks of false posturing to worry about the academic impact of transferring for some athletes within an athletic department while the majority have immediate eligibility freedoms. Do the wrestlers’ academics matter less?

Nor, in fact, is sitting out a year necessarily a terrible thing. Players trying to maximize their pro potential can put in work on their skills and increase strength and athleticism. Getting ahead—or back up to speed—in the classroom is a potential benefit as well.

But creating rules that limit individual freedoms of some athletes and not others is wildly inconsistent. Get everyone on the same page, and let that page be a one-time transfer without restrictions. It may not happen in time to help JT Daniels and others this spring, but it would be the cleanest and fairest method in the future.

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