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College basketball transfer rules again underscore NCAA issues

Complete control exercised by Kansas State in a transfer situation is just another example of how out of touch the NCAA can be, and the problems it faces going forward.

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Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Mid-April is prime transfer season for college basketball players. The season has just ended, decisions regarding coaching changes have been made, and for some athletes, it's a time to pursue a different opportunity. But there's one problem — under current NCAA rules, players aren't guaranteed that right.

In order to be eligible for a scholarship at another university, athletes must receive a release from their current institution. In most cases, they are released, since that's pretty clearly the best move for everyone — why would you want a player on your team who doesn't want to be there?

But every year, some schools that want to hold on to their best players refuse to give those athletes a release. Such is the case with Kansas State women's basketball player Leticia Romero. Romero was the Wildcats' best player as a freshman last season, leading the team in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. When coach Deb Patterson was fired, Romero — who is from Spain — decided to ask for a release. But according to the Topeka Capital-Journal, she thinks she's being blackmailed by the university.

Former Kansas State basketball coach, Deb Patterson/Photo credit: Brendan Maloney-US PRESSWIRE

Her reasons for leaving and wanting a release seem pretty fair. With her family on a different continent, she needs to be with familiar people who can act as a surrogate family:

What was her reason for choosing a school more than 4,000 miles from her home - Las Palmas, Spain - in a completely different climate? The coaches, mainly Deb Patterson, who was fired after 18 seasons, and Shalee Lehning, who decided not to be part of new coach Jeff Mittie's staff.

"The reason I came was because of the coaches," Romero said. "I would've never thought about leaving if none of this would've happened."

Romero could theoretically leave and pay her own way at a new school — Wisconsin transfer Jarrod Uthoff did that two years ago — but that isn't an option for her:

If (the school appeals committee) rules against Romero, she would be unable to transfer with a scholarship for a year.

The consequences of that decision, Romero said, would be extremely trying for her family.

"I will have to sit for a year anyways, but I will have to pay for my scholarship," Romero said, "and that's something I can't do. My parents ... the situation in Spain is really bad right now. They could lose their jobs (at any time)."

The situation is similar to that of recruits who struggled to get a release from their letters of intent, which has happened at Marquette and Appalachian State.

However, while this has been part of schools' practice for years, the NCAA is now running into a problem. While the organization states that its primary goal is to protect student-athletes, it has become increasingly clear that the goal is really to protect the universities' interests.

With major lawsuits and potential unionization looming, Romero's case highlights the biggest holes in the NCAA's case for the continuation of amateurism.

1. Romero's case illustrates that schools have a primarily economic relationship with the university

I won't bore you with all the legalese, but basically, the NCAA and its member schools have argued that players are there primarily for an education. Schools give them a scholarship so they can get a degree, and they just happen to make a lot of money for the school on the side.

They don't care if she gets her education elsewhere — they care about her potentially competing elsewhere athletically.

However, it's clear that by not releasing Romero from her scholarship, Kansas State wants to keep its best player so she can continue to perform a service for the university. The university may say that it's a coincidence, but considering that Kansas State, by not releasing her, would put her in a position where she couldn't receive an education on scholarship elsewhere, it's difficult to argue that the school's primary goal is to look out for her academic well-being.

Moreover, the scholarship tender signed by Romero looks a lot like an employment contract. The university basically has the power to create a de facto non-compete clause by not releasing her from the agreement. They don't care if she gets her education elsewhere — they care about her potentially competing elsewhere athletically.

In deciding that Northwestern football players are employees, the regional director of the NLRB in Chicago found that the scholarship tender is an employment contract. Northwestern appealed that it sees the scholarship tender as an "award," not a contract, but in situations like Romero's in which the agreement can bar a transfer, the schools' and the NCAA's terminology is hard to defend.

2. Players commit to coaches, not schools

The NCAA argues that players commit to schools, not coaches, meaning they are committing to receive an education. However, in the midst of an explosion of interest in recruiting, we've increasingly seen that this simply isn't the case.

Romero makes that explicitly clear: She only went to Kansas State because of the coaches, and since they left, she no longer wanted to attend the school. She was there to play basketball, not get a degree.


Patterson and Romero during a timeout/Photo credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA and its schools would argue that an athlete can get whatever they want out of an experience, but they only give a scholarship for academics. That's certainly a fair argument, except when making decisions regarding transfers, many schools indirectly admit that the coach is perhaps the most important part of the commitment. Romero said the school wanted her to try playing under the new coach for a year, while in the aforementioned Marquette story, the school would not release a player from his letter of intent until he met with the new coach.

There may not be anything that can be done to help the NCAA's case on this point — it's the nature of recruiting. However, cases like Romero's bring it into the public spotlight even more and cast significant doubt on the NCAA's notion that athletes commit to receive an education, not to play their sport.

3. Schools have complete control over their players

Perhaps the NCAA's most pressing problem with the transfer rules is that coaches and schools have complete control over what a player can and cannot do, supporting the case that athletes are employees.

While coaches can "fire" athletes at any time by not renewing their scholarships, athletes have restrictions regarding where they can go — restrictions that could potentially get in the way of their academic and professional goals.

The transfer rules and the nature of the scholarship tender were major issues in the unionization debate, and they were key to the athletes being deemed employees. If the NCAA allowed players to transfer with far fewer restrictions, then it would have a case in saying it is looking out for athletes' well-being. But since the scholarship essentially amounts to a contract that gives the schools all the power, it appears protecting those schools — and their economic interests — is the NCAA's top priority.

There has been backlash to these rules for a long time, but it typically began and ended with someone calling out the NCAA's hypocrisy. But now, examples like Romero's have proven to be major roadblocks for the NCAA and its membership in their defense of the merits of amateurism.

Specifically — as has been noted in the O'Bannon suit, the unionization effort and the Kessler suit — the word itself means nothing if you're applying different principles than you preach.

The NCAA is doing its best to make changes, and we should see some updated transfer rules soon. However, the change may be coming too late, as situations like Romero's have already built a pretty big case against the NCAA as an institution.

Ironically, the same rules that have helped the NCAA protect its economic interests could contribute to the downfall of the organization.