Untangling the SEC’s Graduate Transfer Mess

150px-SEC_new_logoContrary to popular belief and a headline that I will not blame CBS’s Jon Solomon for, the SEC never “banned” graduate transfers. The SEC rule passed back in 2011 and likely prompted by Jeremiah Masoli’s transfer from Oregon to Mississippi after being dismissed from the Ducks football team was that transfers who had graduated were not immediately eligible under the NCAA’s various graduate transfer policies unless they had at least two seasons of competition remaining. The goal was to make sure that graduate transfers had additional time to work toward an actual graduate degree.

The SEC had established waiver criteria but the waiver process meant that SEC coaches had to wait before they could confidently tell a transfer prospect that they would be immediately eligible. The SEC has made that waiver an exception now, which can be applied on campus (I wonder where they got that idea), but with a twist:

Once the transfer comes to an SEC school, the rule requires the player to make progress toward a graduate degree. If that doesn’t happen, the university won’t be able to apply the grad-student exception in that athlete’s sport for three years.

The definition of “progress toward a graduate degree” is critical. The NCAA’s progress-toward-degree rules for graduate students are minimal. A graduate student merely has to be enrolled in a full-time graduate program and pass six hours each term. There is no minimum GPA, annual hour requirement, or percentage-of-degree standard. That is a minimal bar and gets right at the SEC’s biggest concern: football players coming in as graduate transfers for one semester and never completing a single graduate credit.

If the SEC is asking for significantly more than the NCAA’s minimum, then the penalty looms much larger. If the SEC wants graduate transfers to complete 12–15 graduate hours, bringing in football players in their last season of eligibility will be a significant risk, even if they meet all NCAA requirements. Anything beyond that would make it virtually impossible to bring in any football player with professional ambitions not to mention expand the risk of losing the exception to basketball.

The penalty the SEC chose deserves scrutiny as well. Like the APR, the penalty for the academic failings of some athletes will land on athletes who had nothing to do with the shortfall. But in the case of the APR, that failing is more collective. It takes more than one athlete falling ineligible to draw an APR penalty. If the SEC wants a “zero tolerance” policy perhaps an individual penalty on the coach, like a significant suspension, is more appropriate. Coaches still have an option to bring in graduate transfers as the missing pieces to a championship team every four years and ignore their academic progress with no real penalty.

The carrot might have been better than the stick in this case. The SEC’s existing waiver criteria make a lot of sense, limiting the transfer exception to not just athletes who graduated but those who did without disciplinary or academic issues. Perhaps a requirement that an immediately eligible graduate transfer be guaranteed financial aid to come back and complete their degree (currently allowed under NCAA rules) would balance the desire to make graduate competition in the SEC meaningful with the (currently limited) freedom an athlete earns by completing the basic academic obligation of earning a baccalaureate degree.

With more and more noise about the power conferences looking at transfer rules as a significant initiative and reasoning for autonomy, perhaps the SEC will be saved from itself. Significantly looser general transfer rules like expanding the one-time transfer exception to all sports would mean the SEC’s graduate transfer rules would be invoked only rarely if they are maintained at all.