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What the NCAA Should Do About College Basketball Transfers

This is the third and final installment in a three-part series looking at college basketball’s transfer issues. In the first, I looked at whether college basketball really has a transfer “epidemic” (answer: not really). In the second, I explored why college basketball has such high transfer rates (answer: not sure but the NBA is a good guess). Today, I’ll explain what I think the NCAA should do about this issue and why.

To answer the question of what the NCAA should do about college basketball transfers, the first step is to define the problem. Basketball players transfer at a high rate, but why is that something that needs to be stopped?

In Dick Vitale’s article which prompted this series, he goes on and on about how the high rate of transfers is a problem, one “plaguing the sport he loves”. But nowhere in his article does Vitale explain how this volume of transfer activity is damaging the sport. To continue the medical metaphor, the disease has been identified (lots of transfers), everyone seems to have an opinion about the cause, but the doctor cannot find any serious symptoms.

Even if identifying the specific damage being done to college basketball by transfers is difficult, we can rule out one broad category: academics. The NCAA’s own metrics say that whatever harm transfers do to men’s basketball, graduation at least is not one of them.

NCAA research has found that transferring is a negative academic event. Control for all other variables and transferring makes an athlete less likely to graduate. That is why retention is one half of the APR calculation. But for athletes with at least a 2.600, the effect is minimal. It might be statistically significant across the large sample size of all scholarship athletes, but for an individual athlete it is not a big deal. That is why starting with the 2007–08 APR cohort, the NCAA stopped penalizing teams when athlete transfers with at least a 2.600 GPA, among other requirements.

We know transfers are rising, both in terms of the raw number and the rate. But that is not reflected in the APR. Here are men’s basketball’s average retention scores for every year since 2007–08:

  • 2007–08: 927.6
  • 2008–09: 933.7
  • 2009–10: 933.3
  • 2010–11: 932.8
  • 2011–12: 939.0
  • 2012–13: 946.9

In the last two years, which showed the most transfer activity, basketball’s retention score has started rising again after stalling out for a few years. The most likely explanation for such a significant jump is that more basketball players are earning the APR’s transfer exception, which according to the NCAA means their transfer did only minimal academic damage.

When specific problems caused by transfers are pointed out, they are almost exclusively athletic problems. This is Nevada athletic director Doug Knuth back in April:

“The big-time schools have gotten so big, the pressure on them to win is so big that if they have a student-athlete leave early for some reason — they go pro or whatever the issue is — and they’ve got to fill a position, they come down and look at our schools, and that’s not right.”

And Southern Illinois head men’s basketball coach Barry Hinson in 2013:

“If you think for one moment,” says Hinson, who worked on Self’s staff at KU from 2008 to 2012, “that there aren’t staff meetings (at major college programs) taking place in March and April that are bringing up, ‘Who are the best mid-major players out there and do they have the opportunity to graduate in three years?’ Then we are making ourselves look ignorant. That’s happening right now, a lot of places. And if you think for one moment that kids haven’t figured this out, it’s getting ready to be an issue for our level.”

Major conference programs luring players from mid-major programs is the one consistent problem being pointed out. But this edges into some dangerous territory for the coaches and administrators who want to make that argument. First, it at least makes it sound like these schools believe they have a right to all four seasons of an athlete’s collegiate career. Second, it is essentially a competitive equity argument: we small schools cannot lure away your best players, so you should not be able to poach ours.

2014 is an especially poor time to make either of those arguments. The student-athlete rights movement has focused on transfer rules as one of its key issues. Power conferences are responding by lumping transfer rules in with limits on scholarships and miscellaneous benefits for athletes as an outdated relic of the impossible push for a level playing field. Not to mention that the bulk of transfer activity is still downward; mid-majors are getting far more former major conferences players than the other way around.

Boil all that down and what it means is the NCAA has little to no justification for trying to stop the rising tide of college basketball transfers. The APR is the best metric available for determining if it is an academic issue. Until someone comes up with a better approach and a different result, the answer is no. Concerns about competitive equity and “the health of game” are trumped by athlete welfare concerns with the current transfer rules.

What the NCAA should do is loosen transfer rules in two ways.

  1. Supplement permission to contact with a modified version of the DIII Self-Release. In Division III, athletes can grant other DIII institutions permission to contact themselves, without involving their current school. For the first 30 days, the other school even has to keep the permission secret if the athlete says so. Division I should have a similar system with two changes: no secrecy provision and granting a self-release terminates an athlete’s scholarship at the end of the current term. Athletes could still ask for permission to contact other schools to look around while keeping their current scholarship.
  2. Expand the one-time transfer exception to all sports and include a 2.600 GPA requirement. This would give basketball players who will not meaningfully suffer academically by transferring a chance to play immediately. This is not free agency though. The existing one-time transfer exception requires permission from an athlete’s current school to use the exception, with the same appeals process as permission to contact.

Together, this creates a system where the more important release is to play immediately, not to receive a scholarship. Athletes can walk away from their current institution with no permission if they are willing to sit a year. The NCAA could also give a clock extension any time immediate eligibility is denied, so it does not cost an athlete any eligibility.

This will likely increase the number of transfers. But those transfers will be even less likely to create academic issues. Most athletes will try to get a 2.600 to play immediately and will need to carry enough credits to be eligible at the new school. It might even reduce the number of transfers as athletes who do not meet the academic requirements decide to stay where they are until they can transfer and play immediately.

Balancing the interests of the athletes, the interests of schools, and the interests of the NCAA, the scales tip clearly in favor of the athletes on this issue at this time. That may change in the future. But at this moment, the NCAA has little justification for trying to restrict transfers in college basketball (or any other sport) even more than they already are and much better reasons to loosen the rules in this area.

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