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Here’s the SEC rule that could prevent Malik Zaire from playing for Florida

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A conference bylaw could punish Zaire for the academic issues of former Florida players.

Notre Dame v Virginia Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

It sure seems like former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire wants to spend the 2017 season at Florida. But it’s far from assured that he’ll be able to, because of an SEC rule that restricts the Gators from adding players in exactly Zaire’s situation.

Zaire recently gradated from Notre Dame. Because he’s already completed his degree, Zaire isn’t subject to the one-year academic residency requirement that the NCAA imposes on most transfers. Using a graduate transfer exception, Zaire should be able to play right away. Florida wants him, and he appears to want Florida.

The obstacle here is a rule the SEC adopted in 2014. It says that if a graduate transfer to a particular program doesn’t meet certain academic requirements, the program isn’t allowed to use the exception for three years after his enrollment.

From SEC bylaw 14.1.15.3:

The student-athlete must earn all possible APR points applicable for each term of enrollment. If the student-athlete does not earn all possible APR points, the certifying institution may not use the SEC Bylaw 14.1.15.1 graduate student exception in the particular sport for three years following the student-athlete’s first date of initial full-time enrollment at the certifying institution

Academic Progress Rate is the NCAA’s measurement of choice to evaluate how well a team’s players are doing (and improving) in the classroom. One way for a grad transfer to not earn all possible APR points is to not finish a grad degree at his new school. The SEC also mandates a grad transfer take at least nine credit hours during his first full-time semester. These requirements are where Florida has found trouble.

For the 2015 season, Florida added grad transfers Mason Halter and Anthony Harrell. The two didn’t meet the academic benchmarks to stay eligible for the whole season. They also fell short of the SEC’s rules for grad transfers, and Florida had to admit as much to the conference in a written report. That set off a three-year penalty, so under current conditions, UF can’t have football grad transfers again until at least 2018.

The SEC could change the rule, freeing up Zaire to play for Florida.

League commissioner Greg Sankey sounds open to it. The league has its annual meetings this week in Destin, Fla., and the grad transfer rule is on the table.

“It will come up,” Sankey said recently. “I do think we need to look where we’ve been restrictive in the past because of the absence of national rules and look at reducing some of those restrictions. I’m one who would position it as interest in freeing things up without just removing every restraint, because I think the restraints have been healthy for us.”

But a change to the rule will require the Gators’ rivals to help them.

The rule can’t change without a majority vote. It’s not clear if Florida will have the votes if it pushes for a change. Will Georgia, for instance, want to alter a rule so Florida can add a former four-star recruit with experience as a starting QB at a blue-blood program? Even if UGA thinks it’s a bad rule, changing it now will hurt its East division chances in 2017.

The political dynamics are interesting. If a team votes against a rule change now and hurts Florida, would the Gators disarm and support a rule change sometime later, when the shoe is on the other foot? Athletic administrators are a competitive bunch, and for some, that might supersede their professional opinion of the rule’s merits.

If Zaire wants to go to Florida and can’t, he’ll have been wronged.

He’s an unpaid amateur under the NCAA and SEC’s definition. He got his degree, and that should allow him to pick his landing spot and play there immediately.

If it turns out that Zaire is the one punished for former Gators not hitting the books hard enough, it’s hard to see who’s being served.