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Transfer Issue Needs More Balanced Tools, Not Blanket Rules

The message from the coaches in Rustin Dodd’s article about transfers is one of powerlessness. Players are going to leave and there is nothing coaches can do about it. As a result the normal movement of students between colleges for a variety of reasons gets a negative branding like “free agency” or “waiver wire”.

But the NCAA has given coaches plenty of tools to combat transfers. Permission to contact can be denied, depriving the athlete the scholarship most need to jump to a new school. In most cases, student-athletes need the approval of their former school to play right away. The Todd O’Brien saga should have been sufficient illustration of that, especially as it applies to one of the biggest scapegoats in the article, the graduate transfer rule.

But these tools are insufficient in the minds of coaches. Explaining why has to start with coaches themselves, who have misused transfer restrictions. Look no further than the reports that Wes Lunt’s transfer became part of an SEC-Big XII feud. High-profile cases of extensive or unfair transfer restrictions lead to a media backlash against transfer restrictions that are within the control of an institution, often with no alternatives offered.

Coaches are just as guilty of a lack of imagination when trying to come up with solutions. This passage from Kansas head men’s basketball coach Bill Self is a great example:

Offering multiyear deals, Self says, probably wouldn’t cut down on transfers. Players could still leave at their own volition, and the current structure would ultimately remain intact.

What Self does not appear to have considered is that transfer restrictions are now largely a public relations battle. A coach who wants to impose transfer restrictions on an athlete that has no guarantee of a scholarship after a year is an entirely different thing than a coach who is willing to commit to the athlete long-term. Athletes who agreed to four- or five-year scholarships have a weaker case for being allowed to walk away from the institution. Contrast that with an athlete who has fulfilled every commitment he has made, is at the end of the school’s commitment to him, and now wants to explore other opportunities.

Rather than going through the slow and painful process of changing public opinion, coaches want the NCAA to solve the problem for them. Their suggestions center on having no more waivers of the transfer residency requirement and the NCAA doing more to combat tampering. While those ideas might sound nice in theory, they would never survive contact with the real world. No one actually believes there should be no waivers. What they really mean is no waivers but a different set of base rules, or waivers with different standards.

The existing system can use some tweaks. The NCAA could require that in order to use any sort of transfer restriction (or to go beyond a reasonable set like other conference institutions), the institution must immediately renew the athlete’s scholarship for the following year or until the athlete graduates. That would impose a cost on coaches, but would make denying transfer restrictions more palatable since the athlete is getting something in return.

A good example of how this changes perception is in cases when a coach wants to impose some sort of transfer restriction because an athlete will cost them APR points. The coach’s rationale, that the athlete needs to improve his or her GPA before they can transfer, is easier to accept when backed by up the guarantee of a scholarship. In the current system, the coach can make that claim, but is under no obligation to do anything to help the athlete improve academically, including keeping him or her on scholarship.

Rules like permission to contact, use of the one-time transfer exception, and the graduate transfer exception/waiver have a lot of value. Because they involve the institution and the athlete, not a blanket rule imposed by the NCAA, they can be used to address individual cases differently. Coaches should not be given a free pass to use transfer restrictions vindictively or without careful consideration. They get paid the big bucks to make tough calls and resolve these situations, not to have the NCAA take care of everything for them.

But at the same time, coaches are being held increasingly responsible for what goes on in their own programs. They should have the necessary tools, whether we are talking about APR or compliance. Tools which allow for flexibility are beneficial to both the coach and the athlete, the latter of whom will be harmed far more often by a blanket rule than coaches.

The NCAA and its members should also not be allowed to punt this challenge. Imposing blanket rules like “no waivers” is a cop-out. The NCAA’s job is to manage college athletics and balance competing interests. The membership should be required to make those hard decision as well, rather than giving into coaches who simply want one less thing to worry about.

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