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One potential NCAA transfer rule could be great. The other ... we'll see

Some of these ideas would help athletes. Some of them might hurt them.

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Former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire will play this season at Florida, but he almost couldn’t because of an SEC rule. An NCAA panel is now batting around similar rule ideas.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The web of NCAA rules that governs athletic transfers is complicated, but the basics are simple.

A football player who wants to transfer from one school to another needs his previous school to release him from his scholarship, or he can’t get an athletic scholarship at his new school. (For many, that’s a de-facto restriction on transferring at all.) If a player gets that release, he needs to sit out one season before resuming his eligibility clock and playing career — unless he’s finished with his undergraduate degree, in which case he can play immediately.

There are exceptions piled on exemptions piled on loopholes, because that’s how the NCAA’s bureaucracy works. But some changes might be on the horizon.

The good: An NCAA working group might take some power from schools.

NCAA decision-makers tend to make decisions that benefit themselves more than the athletes. The biggest example is that players don’t get paid. And colleges have the power to deny transferring players scholarships anywhere else.

Most teams don’t. Restrictions on specific transfer destinations are common, though, like when teams tell departing athletes they can go anywhere except to a conference rival or a team on the schedule in the next two years.

Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder recently tried to block 35 schools from a player’s transfer list, and that was extraordinary enough that Snyder took public heat and relented. Blocking a player altogether would be a PR nightmare, and schools usually decide that such an approach isn’t worthwhile.

On Wednesday, the NCAA’s Division I Council Transfer Working Group said it doesn’t think schools should be able to hit players with a scholarship stick:

One of the ideas posed is to modify permission to contact rules. Currently, Division I college athletes who wish to transfer to another school must first receive permission from their current school to talk with other schools about opportunities for transferring. If the school denies permission, the student-athlete can’t receive athletics aid after transferring.

Group members believe financial aid should not be tied to whether a school grants permission to contact. They want to know if others in the membership feel the same way. The group also agreed that enhancements should be made to the formal process students use to notify a school of their desire to transfer. The group will seek input from the membership on appropriate enhancements.

If the rest of the DI Council gets behind the idea, your program might not be able to tell a player where he can’t get a scholarship.

The panel also supports the “ongoing review” of conference transfer rules. Leagues often have their own policies, and they can sometimes be excuses for athletic departments to treat athletes in ways that don’t serve athletes.

The potentially bad: Graduate transfers becoming more complicated.

The NCAA’s grad transfer exception is a good thing. When players graduate, they don’t need to sit out a season before transferring.

Some athletic directors and coaches don’t like this rule, because it makes it harder for them to retain players.

It doesn’t sound, according to the NCAA’s writeup of the panel’s conclusions, like that policy will change — at least not at the moment. The committee “generally agreed that immediate eligibility for students competing after graduation is appropriate now,” the NCAA said. Read whatever you will into the word “now.”

But the committee does seem receptive to other changes. It wants to “identify additional methods” to hold schools “accountable” for the academic progress of players who come onboard as graduate transfers.

That sounds terrific, in theory. If you want college athletes to be students, too, policies that force them to go to class and pass their credits are good.

But these rules can be messy. Ex-Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire will play for Florida this season as a grad transfer, but he almost wasn’t able to because of an SEC rule that punished Florida for two previous grad transfers not doing well in classes. (UF wasn’t supposed to be allowed to have graduate transfers this season as a result.)

On the one hand, maybe Florida deserved punishment for not getting its players through school. But on the other, Zaire didn’t deserve to be punished, too.

We don’t know what “accountability” mechanisms would look like. But it’s impossible not to worry that they’d come down on athletes as much as schools.

A few other possible reforms are in play, including one idea to make transfer rules uniform across all sports. (They’re currently not.) The timetables for these possible changes are not yet clear.