Stories about athletes battling with their former schools over transfer destinations is nothing new. It has become a regular feature of the college sports offseason. Most of the time the debate is over how much power schools should have to limit where an athlete, generally a scholarship athlete, can transfer. A consensus is even starting to form around changes like limiting permission to contact to intraconference transfers or eliminating permission to contact but requiring all athletes to sit out without any exceptions or waivers.
But Baker Mayfield’s transfer from Texas Tech to Oklahoma has taken the debate in a new direction. And that direction shows the absolute worst application of the NCAA’s transfer rules.
Mayfield’s story is well known, at least among college football and Big 12 fans. Mayfield won the starting job at Texas Tech as a walk-on before losing it after a midseason injury. That lead to what Mayfield described as “miscommunication” between himself and Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury about his place on the depth chart and the possibility of a scholarship in the spring.
Exactly what happened with Mayfield’s transfer can be confusing when multiple NCAA rules are reduced to phrases like “released from his scholarship” or convention wisdom like “players in sports other than football and basketball can transfer and play immediately, but players in those two sports have to sit out a year.” Kingsbury did not help matters with his comments at Big 12 media days explaining his decision to “block” Mayfield’s transfer:
Asked what went into his decision to block the transfer, Kingsbury said, “Team policy. That’s it. The NCAA has the in-conference policy for a reason.”
In the space of 13 or 14 words, Kingsbury manages to blame his own policy, the NCAA, and the Big 12. Coaches typically have a big say in releases. And while the NCAA does not make intraconference transfer policies, all three of these contributed to Mayfield’s situation.
Despite being a walk-on, Mayfield needs permission to contact other schools about a transfer. Without it, other schools cannot recruit him or encourage a transfer. More importantly, if he transfers to a school which Texas Tech has denied him permission to contact, that school cannot give him a scholarship for one academic year. So regardless of the facts that he played as a walk-on for Texas Tech, never signed an NLI, and the dispute over whether he was offered a scholarship for spring or fall 2014, Texas Tech can prevent Mayfield from getting a scholarship at Oklahoma.
But Mayfield is not just any walk-on. In January Mayfield claimed to Jake Trotter that he was not recruited by Texas Tech. In the NCAA, being nonrecruited does not mean what it means to the layman. An athlete can be recruited quite extensively and still meet the definition of nonrecruited; conversely some minimal recruiting can trigger the definition of a recruited athlete. For an athlete to be recruited for the purposes of transfer rules, one of the following things has to happen:
- The athlete is given a written scholarship offer or National Letter of Intent;
- The athlete comes on an official visit;
- The athlete has off-campus, in-person contact with a coach; or
- The athlete receives two phone calls initiated by a staff member at the school.
Generally athletes in football and basketball (as well as baseball and men’s ice hockey) cannot transfer and play immediately because they do meet the requirements for any exception to the NCAA’s general rule that all transfers must sit for one year. The most common exception, the one which effectively swallows the general rule for other sports, is the one-time transfer exception. The first requirement for that exception is that the athlete plays a sport other than baseball, basketball, FBS football, or men’s ice hockey. But there is an exception to that requirement for using the one-time transfer exception:
A student-athlete who does not qualify for the exception due to Bylaw 126.96.36.199.10-(a) may use the one-time transfer exception, provided he or she was not recruited by the original four-year institution and has never received institutional athletically related financial aid from any four-year institution.
We know Mayfield was a walk-on so if he was an unrecruited walk-on according to the NCAA’s definition, he would be eligible to use the one-time transfer exception despite playing football. But the final requirement to use the one-time transfer exception says this:
If the student is transferring from an NCAA or NAIA member institution, the student’s previous institution shall certify in writing that it has no objection to the student being granted an exception to the transfer-residence requirement.
Everything suggests that Mayfield was an unrecruited walk-on who tried to transfer and was denied both permission to contact (which he needs to get a scholarship at OU despite walking on at Texas Tech) and permission to use the one-time transfer exception (which he can only use because he was an unrecruited walk-on). Despite the fact that his official status in the eyes of the NCAA is no different than a random student who tried out and made the roster, Texas Tech can still prevent him from playing and receiving a scholarship his first year at Oklahoma.
On top of all this, Big 12 intraconference transfer rules impose an additional penalty on Mayfield as a result:
The eligibility of a student-athlete who transfers directly or indirectly from one Member Institution to another shall be determined by NCAA regulations and the following Conference requirements. In the event NCAA regulations require the student-athlete to complete one full academic year in residence before being eligible to compete in a sport, the student-athlete shall also forfeit one season of competition in that sport.
Had Texas Tech granted Mayfield use of the one-time transfer exception, he would not be subject to the Big 12 intraconference transfer penalty. As it stands now, he would be charged this season of competition while he sits, leaving him with only two seasons left to play starting in 2015. Even if he gets an NCAA waiver to play this year, Oklahoma would then need to get a Big 12 waiver to stop Mayfield from effectively being charged two seasons this year (assuming he plays).
The odds of an NCAA waiver are slim. This is from the NCAA Division I Subcommittee for Legislative Relief’s waiver guidelines regarding waiver requests when use of the one-time transfer exception is denied:
During its October 2002 meeting, the subcommittee reaffirmed its directive regarding waiver requests of the one-time transfer legislation when an NCAA institution has denied a one-time transfer release to a student-athlete. The subcommittee did not believe it should overturn these types of decisions and that the staff should deny these cases during the staff’s first review of the case on behalf of the subcommittee.
That is a fairly unequivocal statement. Perhaps there is a case where the subcommittee would grant this type of waiver, but it would require compelling mitigation. Documented verbal or physical abuse by a coach would be an example. Nothing so far made public about Mayfield’s departure from Texas Tech rises to that level. This waiver is a very long shot at best.
But Mayfield should not need one. A system of permission to contact has some value, but the positives are buried under by the negatives when the stakes are an athlete’s scholarship and there is no recourse outside the institution. This goes doubly so for walk-ons. At the very least, an institution denying a walk-on permission to contact any institution, even just one, should be required to provide that athlete with a scholarship for the remainder of their eligibility.
Likewise, if an FBS football player is able to use the one-time transfer exception as a result of being not just a walk-on but an unrecruited walk-on, he should not have to then go ask for permission to use that exception. That defeats much of the purpose of having an exception for unrecruited walk-ons in the first place. It would make more sense to just allow all athletes to use the one-time transfer exception and be OK with it being denied most of the time.
Texas Tech may have invested in Mayfield with training, coaching, and tutoring, but failed to invest in him with the two things the NCAA says matter most: a scholarship and as little recruiting effort as two phone calls. That should not just grant Mayfield the opportunity to ask Texas Tech’s permission to get a scholarship and play somewhere else. It should grant him complete freedom to do so without Texas Tech having any say whatsoever.