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The Cameron Johnson transfer saga shows where the real power is in college sports

It’s with administrators, not players. Johnson’s case is the latest illustration.

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Cameron Johnson was slated to be the top returning scorer on Pitt’s men’s basketball team next season, but he announced earlier this spring that he’d transfer. It didn’t take long for reports to emerge that Johnson was interested in North Carolina, the defending national champion and a conference foe of Pitt’s in the ACC. On Tuesday, Johnson committed to the Tar Heels. But there’s a potential hitch in the deal.

Johnson’s transfer is a unique one. He’s a notoriously good student who’d previously drawn Ivy League recruitment, and he graduated from Pitt in three years. That makes Johnson eligible for the NCAA’s graduate transfer exception, which allows transferring players to compete immediately without sitting out an “academic residency” season. And because of an injury earlier in his career, Johnson is the rare grad transfer with two seasons of eligibility remaining. There are not a lot of cases like his in any given year.

But Pitt has leverage in deciding what Johnson can and can’t do. The NCAA’s rules are such that Pitt doesn’t have to release Johnson from his scholarship if it doesn’t want. And if Pitt doesn’t release Johnson, he can’t play elsewhere. Most schools let their players transfer at their leisure, but schools sometimes set conditions. When Johnson opted to transfer, Pitt reportedly told him he couldn’t go to an ACC team or one on the Panthers’ schedule in the upcoming years. North Carolina is both of those things.

Pitt appears to have relented, at least somewhat, because Johnson was willing to publicly commit to UNC. But for now, he’s facing a requirement that he doesn’t play in the 2017-18 season and loses one of his two remaining seasons while he sits.

Via Scout’s Evan Daniels:

Pittsburgh's transfer release stipulates that he's immediately eligible to play everywhere except the ACC - where he'd face a one-year penalty.

Johnson has been fighting that ruling and will continue to do so, he said, with the aid of UNC.

His father, Gilbert Johnson, explained: "He didn't (get a waiver) yet but per the NCAA and ACC, they says it's illegal to take away a year from him because he's a graduate transfer. It says he can go or not."

His father is referring to NCAA Bylaw 14.6.1, which does not contain the one-year penalty that Pittsburgh is trying to enforce.

"Carolina is going to fight it out," he added.

That bylaw covers the NCAA’s “one-time transfer exception,” which could allow a player to play immediately after a transfer. A basketball graduate student doesn’t qualify for that exception unless his previous school declines to renew his scholarship. It appears Pitt is letting Johnson go, but again, there’s a lot we don’t know.

Johnson should eventually play for Carolina. It’s still not clear if that’ll be for two years starting this fall or for one year starting in 2018.

Analysis from Tar Heel Blog:

Getting Johnson on board for next season is huge for the Tar Heels. As a forward, Johnson can step into a similar role that Justin Jackson played for the national champions last season. He made 42% of his shots from beyond the arc for the Panthers last year.

...

Now Roy Williams gets another strong shooter to add to his starting lineup in his quest to defend his national championship. Adding that kind of unexpected production so late in the game is fantastic news.

Johnson is not being treated fairly.

Johnson is by all accounts a great student who represented his school well, but he committed to Pitt under a different coaching staff. He didn’t initially sign up to play for the program’s current coach, Kevin Stallings. He’s thrived in the classroom and on the court, just like the NCAA, ACC, and Pitt say they want.

The ACC exempts grad students from its general transfer rules, and Johnson would qualify immediately as an ordinary, NCAA-defined graduate transfer. So to whatever extent he’s being restrained, Pitt has the power not to do that, and it shouldn’t.

Pitt’s statement on the matter, from spokesman Matt Plizga to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

“We have remained consistent with our athletic department policy, within NCAA legislation, stipulating student-athletes are restricted from transferring to institutions within the Atlantic Coast Conference and those on our schedule next season,” Pittsburgh assistant athletics director for media relations Matt Plizga said in a statement. "Cameron Johnson and his father were informed of our policy as well as the appeals process when they elected to seek transfer. They went through our transfer appeals process and were granted permission to contact ACC school however, the committee upheld the policy to limit immediate eligibility within the conference.

"If Cameron were to transfer within the ACC, he would be eligible to receive financial aid immediately but would have to sit out a year of competition due to standard NCAA transfer regulations. Throughout this process, we have remained consistent to our department policy and we will continue to do so.”

This mindset doesn’t serve the player at all. Johnson knew what he was getting into when he signed his scholarship papers years ago, and rules are rules, and all of that’s true. But if Johnson wants to be a Tar Heel right now, why shouldn’t he be? The benefit to Johnson of choosing his own destination is greater than the inconvenience Pitt will face by having to go up against him. Even if it weren’t, that wouldn’t be a defense.

This is a problem that extends way beyond one school, though.

It’s par for the course for programs in many sports to bar players from transferring to particular schools, usually conference opponents. These restrictions are more commonly placed on transfers who haven’t graduated yet. That’s not good, either.

Whenever a school tells a transfer where he can’t go, it’s inhibiting a young person’s critical life decision for nothing but its own competitive gain. It’s hilariously ignorant of the “student” part of “student-athlete,” too, because Pitt shouldn’t care where Johnson takes his graduate classes. But as long as other schools are doing it, it’s unlikely that any one school will choose to disarm. In that respect, it’s a systemic issue.

Johnson deserves to play at North Carolina, and he deserves to play there this season. If he’s not allowed, it’ll be because the powers that be didn’t put the player first.