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Graduate transfer exception rule shows NCAA got something right

Maybe Russell Wilson wants to try to lead a team to the Rose Bowl. Maybe he knows tailbacks James White and Montee Ball will inspire so much fear in opposing defenses that he'll have more time to throw. Maybe he simply wants to go to Wando's on Free Bacon Tuesday.

It doesn't matter why the most sought after free agent in college football this season chose to go to Wisconsin to play his final season of eligibility. What matters is that Wilson was allowed to make the move by the only NCAA rule that actually rewards student-athletes for taking care of the "student" side of the equation.

Wilson, a Colorado Rockies minor-leaguer who cut short his single-A season to play one more year of college football, can play immediately at Wisconsin because he already earned a bachelor's degree (in communications) at N.C. State. The NCAA allows a one-time exception for graduate students that eliminates the sit-out year that accompanies most transfers. As long as Wilson enrolls in a graduate program at Wisconsin that N.C. State doesn't offer, he can play in 2011.

The grad student exception is the best rule in the books because it is the only one that offers a positive incentive for athletes. The NCAA has a thick manual that tells athletes what they can't do. Don't write messages on your eye black. Don't plan on playing immediately if you change your mind about where you want to attend school. Don't cash in on your fame even if your coach makes $3,000 per minute of regulation play.

The graduate transfer exception is the one regulation that tells athletes what they can do. If an athlete takes care of business in the classroom, he can earn one period of free agency that would allow him to play a year or -- if he really bore down in class -- two at another school. Coaches always talk about wanting to graduate players. This particular carrot might be the thing that inspires a player unhappy with his situation to keep going to class.

Wilson's free agency was a direct result of the rule in more than one way. This past spring, N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien had to decide whether Wilson or redshirt junior Mike Glennon would start for the Wolfpack. Why? Because Glennon earned a business degree in three years. Had O'Brien picked Wilson, Glennon could have declared himself a free agent and played somewhere else this season.

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That's only fair. Why should Glennon have had to sit out a year if he chose to transfer to another FBS school? Did O'Brien have to sit out a year when he left Boston College for a bigger paycheck at N.C. State after the 2006 season? Of course not.

Obviously, allowing every player to transfer without penalty would lead to anarchy. But this rule doesn't apply to every player. It applies to the ones who make a degree a priority. If things go sideways after three or four years at a school, they should have the right to finish their careers at a place that makes them happy if they held up their side of the bargain in the classroom.

The SEC would disagree. After Oct. 1, the league won't allow any more graduate transfer exceptions for players with only one year of eligibility remaining. (Players such as Glennon, who has two years of eligibility remaining, would still be eligible to transfer and play immediately.) The SEC rescinded the exceptions after it got embarrassed when quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who had been booted from Oregon's team, used the rule to transfer and play right away at Ole Miss.

Yes, that looked bad. But one abuse shouldn't cause the elimination of a rule that can motivate others to graduate. And yes, most of these transfers -- from Ryan Smith at Florida to Greg Paulus at Syracuse to Masoli at Ole Miss -- are undertaken with sports in mind. But so are most signings out of high school. If FBS-bound football players truly valued education over sports, Stanford, Duke and Vanderbilt would have the top three signing classes every year.

If Wilson succeeds at Wisconsin, he might inspire others to take the fast track toward a degree. And Wilson is in a fine position, if he can learn the offense and beat out redshirt sophomore Jon Budmayr. At N.C. State, Wilson had to create a lot with his legs. Thanks to White, Ball, and a line that returns three starters, he won't have to do that at Wisconsin. Still, defenses will have to respect Wilson's ability to run. Wilson will need to raise his passing efficiency numbers if he hopes to duplicate what Scott Tolzein gave the Badgers last year, but Wilson has proved he can take care of the football. Remember, he set an NCAA record during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, when he threw 379 passes without an interception.

Wilson also attended a few classes during those years, and that's how he earned his free agency. We spend so much time complaining about the rules NCAA schools get wrong. Monday was a day to celebrate the one they absolutely got right.