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3 ways a new NCAA free transfer rule would (and wouldn’t) change college sports

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You know that rule about college athletes having to sit out a year after transferring? The NCAA might partially get rid of it.

NCAA transfers

For about a year, an NCAA committee has been batting around possible changes to the transfer rules currently governing college sports.

The Division I Council Transfer Working Group suggested last June the NCAA do away with its “permission to contact” rule, which gives schools unlimited authority to block players from transferring to particular schools. Now, the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Academics is suggesting a rule change to allow players to transfer and not have to sit out a season if they have meet a grade-point average standard — likely between 3.0 and 3.3.

Here’s what a free transfer rule would mean:

1. It would take some power from coaches and give it to players.

The year-in-residence requirement has been in the the Division I Manual since 1991. Here’s the NCAA’s justification:

Requiring student-athletes to sit out of competition for a year after transferring encourages them to make decisions motivated by academics as well as athletics. Most student-athletes who are not eligible to compete immediately benefit from a year to adjust to their new school and focus on their classes.

Maybe the people who dreamed up the requirement thought they were doing athletes a favor by forcing them to focus on their studies for a year. Maybe they didn’t intend to take freedom away from unpaid athletes and give highly paid coaches an institutional tool to discourage their players from transferring. Who knows?

The rule’s effect is college athletes who want to transfer are discouraged from doing so. Teams have a stick to keep potential transfers in line.

The most prominent exception to the rule is for graduate students, who can play immediately as long as they’ve finished degrees at their prior schools. Extending that option to more players would go against the usual tide of NCAA decision-making. College sports are normally rigged against players and in favor of coaches and administrators — a dynamic that starts with only the latter groups getting paid and flows to transfer restrictions that affect only the former.

2. It might lead to dramatic roster turnover. But it might not.

Coaches usually don’t like the idea of immediate eligibility. In public, they often frame their opposition as a matter of player welfare.

“I would not be in favor,” Purdue basketball coach Matt Painter told ESPN last fall. “It would not allow players to develop and grow as people and players. Any adversity would lead to a transfer and it would just retard their development.”

But there’s another concern, which Painter also acknowledged.

“We would be constantly recruiting and not mentoring the players we have in our program. This would lead to constant poaching and the business of instant gratification instead of growth and development.”

In the same report, Baylor coach Scott Drew said immediate eligibility would turn college sports into the “wild, wild west.”

And that’s the best distillation of coaches’ opposition to the idea: If players are allowed to just up and transfer wherever, they’ll leave their teams all the time, and college sports will become a mess of roster changes where programs can’t build continuity over time. Great players at lesser teams will leave for the top preseason contenders every year.

Would they, though?

The lifeblood of any good program will always be the recruitment of high school athletes. The NCAA has strict scholarship limits for every sport. For FBS football, that’s 85 scholarships at a time, with a max of 25 counting toward any given class. Scholarships have trended toward becoming four-year agreements, and lots of offseason transfers come after National Signing Day. There can only be so many slots, even if a coach is ruthless enough to run off tons of his current players.

The residence rule is a barrier to transfers. Removing it would lead to more. But predictions of a free-for-all seem to miss that other NCAA rules still exist. Conferences can make their own policies that go further than whatever the NCAA says.

Coaches and administrators can leave jobs whenever they want, even if they have contracts that run into the future. Ordinary students can transfer whenever they want and immediately join whichever extracurricular activities they want. Athletes are the only ones who face these rules.

Transfers would increase. But an uncontrollable epidemic, with whole new rosters every year? Nah.

3. Ideally, it’d come alongside other transfer reforms.

It seems like any transfer proposals will get voted on as a package this June.

The Transfer Working Group already announced it wants to do away with the rule that lets teams block players from transferring altogether. Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder tried to block a player from 35 different schools in 2017. Basketball transfer Cameron Johnson became a national story when Pitt and the ACC nearly forced him to sit out this season at North Carolina despite already graduating from Pitt.

It’s all terrible PR for the NCAA’s model. The organization’s member schools really don’t want to pay players in revenue-generating sports, and loosening some transfer rules might alleviate some pressure on the entire organization. In addition to looking good, the NCAA could do some good for its players.