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Harrow and Smith Cases Highlight the Transfer Waiver Debate

Ryan Harrow and Malik Smith will be playing Division I basketball this year after transferring. Both received waivers to play immediately after the transfers, albeit for very different reasons. Harrow’s waiver was based on family hardship, a serious illness his father is suffering that necessitated Harrow’s move from Kentucky to Georgia State, closer to his home in Atlanta. Smith’s waiver came out of Florida International’s postseason ban due to low APR scores. Smith has only one season of competition left, so he was allowed to play immediately after his transfer.

In both cases, it would be a bit heartless to say the player cannot play immediately. For Harrow, it would cost him a year of eligibility since he already sat out after transferring to Kentucky from North Carolina State. Smith would have gotten to play his full eligibility even after sitting out, but it would have been another speed bump in a path to Division I basketball that already included a stop in junior college.

The waivers will also draw the attention of critics. Harrow is already on his second transfer. If he does well for Georgia State this year and graduates, he could theoretically play for a fourth team without sitting out next year. Smith followed his head coach, Richard Pitino, from FIU to Minnesota. While most of the damage done to FIU’s APR was before his time, Pitino’s short tenure there will not do much to help. And FIU was powerless to stop Pitino from recruiting Smith to join him in Minneapolis.

These are the types of waivers that cause people to advocate for getting rid of transfer waivers entirely. The student-athlete’s situation might check all the boxes of someone who deserves a break from standard NCAA rules. Yet there is something in the situation, like a previous transfer or following a coach, that make some people uneasy about granting an exception.

They also highlight how the NCAA has backed itself into a corner. As the waiver process has matured, it has become less subjective. If an athlete meets the requirements for a waiver, the waiver is typically granted. Other considerations are dropped in the name of achieving some type of consistency. As hit-or-miss as some waivers seem, imagine the outcry if these two had been denied for reasons that have little to do with the purpose of the waiver.

The solution is not to get rid of waivers, at least not just that on its own. No one who says “no waivers” actually believes that. There is some parade of horribles one can concoct that would get even the coldest heart to say that student-athlete should not have to sit out. Such an extreme position is not even a strongly held principle amongst some of the people who oppose transfer waivers, like coaches who complain about the graduate transfer exception/waiver, and also use it to their advantage.

The better solution is some combination of more transfer exceptions and more five-year clock extensions, along with a more nuanced approach to permission-to-contact. Perhaps Ryan Harrow does not get to play this year, but his clock is extended so he does not lose the season of competition. And maybe Malik Smith is allowed a choice: transfer to Minnesota and sit out a year, or transfer anywhere else in the country and play immediately. And in neither of these cases does the NCAA have a role where it gets to pick and choose who plays, and who sits.

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