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How players are pushing to change NCAA transfer rules, and how they aren’t

Players might get more freedom to move around, but it won’t be absolute.

Northwestern v Vanderbilt Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The timeline’s not clear, but there’s real momentum inside the NCAA to reform the transfer policies that have shaped Division I player movement for years. A requirement that players get permission from their schools before transferring elsewhere on scholarship is in the most obvious danger.

The NCAA is a giant nesting doll of subcommittees inside committees. A few weeks ago, a “working group” on transfers, connected to the powerful Division I Council, endorsed taking that power out of schools’ hands. Now the NCAA’s main vehicle for players to be heard, the DI Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, backs removing it, too.

The panel wants “to make the process as transparent and fluid as possible, so that instead of asking permission to contact, that they simply have a notification process saying that, ‘Hey, I am transferring,’ and then they have the ability to talk to schools at their liberty,” Brady Bramlett, a former Ole Miss pitcher who co-chairs the SAAC, says.

The SAAC is the main vehicle for athletes to vote on things and bring about change in how the NCAA works. It has 32 members, one from each Division I conference, and its members are scattered throughout the DI Council’s committees. There’s a lot of bureaucratic jargon, but think of it like this: Of the thousands of NCAA athletes who play the games, these 32 are the ones who get to legislate.

The athletes, in general, want to make life easier on athletes.

The “permission to contact” rule, which enables transfer-blocking by schools, is in their crosshairs. Given that the idea has also gotten traction elsewhere in the NCAA food chain, there’s a real chance that schools lose that stick. The full Division I Council has to vote on it, and it’s not clear when that might happen.

Under current rules, most transfers need to sit out a season in “academic residency” after they go from one school to another. The SAAC wants to scrap that rule, too, giving players one transfer “without restriction” during the course of their eligibility. Currently, graduate students have that right, but most don’t.

Changing that rule seems like a longer slog. It wasn’t part of the endorsements made by the transfer working group I mentioned earlier, and schools like having it around because it makes it less likely that their players will leave them.

One thing that’s not coming: free transfers within conferences.

It’s not coming because the one constituency that you’d think might push for it — the athletes — isn’t pushing for it. The SAAC wants players to be eligible immediately when they transfer for a first time, but they’re not pushing for free movement inside leagues. The panel is “very against” intra-conference transfers, Bramlett says, and thinks the one-year wait period should stick around for them.

The reasoning echoes what coaches and administrators often say. The SAAC doesn’t want to create “free agency,” where players jump ship to rivals at a moment’s notice.

“It’s almost like a competition advantage,” he says. “If you’re playing these teams in your own conference, I mean, you play them every year. You could take a valuable, competitive advantages to those schools. That was one point that was brought up.”

And if a player wants to transfer to a conference opponent to be closer to an ill family member or to join an academic program that only exists there?

“You know, for something like that, every transfer can be a case-by-case basis, and obviously there’s waiver processes that you can go through to try to have that year waived,” Bramlett says. “But still, our committee and a lot of our people personally felt that the [intra-conference] transfers should be a hard rule of, if you transfer [intra-conference], then you’re gonna have that academic year in residency.”

The NCAA recently got rid of Division I “hardship waivers,” which let players compete immediately under such circumstances. There’s an argument to be made that if a player’s going through a rough time, he should be pausing his career anyway. There’s also an argument that the choice should be theirs, not the NCAA’s.

These changes would represent a net step forward for players.

At the moment, they need permission from their current schools to get a scholarship anywhere else. That’s bad. At the moment, conferences and schools can block players outright from transferring to other teams within those leagues. That’s bad, too.

If schools lose the right to block transfers, it’s a big step forward for player freedom. And a guaranteed right to transfer within a conference, even with a one-year sitting-out period, would be an advancement from the status quo. It would prevent things like, for instance, a football coach blocking a player from 35 schools.

The NCAA’s transfer rules have for years bent toward helping schools instead of players. That’s not changing quickly, but it might be changing slowly.