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NCAA transfer rules, explained quickly and honestly

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The NCAA is confusing. Its transfer rules are especially so. Here’s an all-sports guide to the rules that govern athlete movement around the country.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-NCAA President Press Conference
Mark Emmert, the NCAA president.
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

The basic rule: If a player transfers, they have to sit out a season.

They aren’t allowed to play in games for a full academic year, though they can practice and train with their new team during that time.

It counts as a redshirt year but could still cost the player a year of eligibility. The NCAA requires players use their four eligible seasons within five calendar years of first enrolling somewhere. When they sit out a year, that clock keeps running, so they run the risk of losing an eligible season if they get hurt.

This “residence requirement” exists, according to the NCAA, to help players do better in school.

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.

Another explanation is the coaches and administrators who run the NCAA prefer to have as much control as possible over players. Coaches and admins leave schools all the time and don’t have to sit out in their first seasons elsewhere. Supporters of the current model excuse that by saying college sports are a job for coaches but a passion for players.

The simplest way to get around the rule is to graduate first.

If a player graduates with college eligibility remaining, they can play elsewhere right away. (That’s as long as they’ve still got time left on their five-year clock. The simplest way to extend your five years is to suffer a season-ending injury early in a season, then hope the NCAA gives you a year back because of it.)

The grad-transfer exception almost always applies to players who have just finished their junior seasons, have graduated early, and want to finish elsewhere. A few players graduate after two years of playing, and they can play immediately, too.

Grad transfers need to enroll like regular students. Some conferences have taken steps to punish schools whose grad transfers don’t meet academic benchmarks. The NCAA has considered similar ideas on a national scale, which might have lousy side effects.

There’s a bunch of exceptions.

  • Football players who go from an FBS team to an FCS team (or from FCS to FCS teams that don’t offer scholarships) don’t have to sit a season, as long as they have two years of eligibility left. Same for anyone transferring to the non-scholarship Division III.
  • Players who haven’t participated in an NCAA sport over the last two years can transfer and play immediately. There are also exceptions for exchange students. Neither comes up often.
  • If a team gets caught breaking NCAA rules and banned from the postseason for all the remaining years of a player’s career, that player can transfer and play right away. Ole Miss’ football team was bowl-banned for 2018, so rising seniors had free transfers out. This includes players on teams who have been punished for players getting paid, as long as the player who’s transferring can show he or she didn’t break rules deliberately.
  • If a player had their career interrupted due to military service, they could transfer without having to sit. So can players who transfer for demonstrable health reasons. And so can players who transfer because their schools discontinued their teams or their academic programs. Those are rarities at big-time football and basketball schools.
  • The NCAA also just grants waivers when it feels like it. One Ole Miss player who wasn’t a rising senior, quarterback Shea Patterson, got a waiver to Michigan despite not meeting any of the criteria. The NCAA likes good PR.

Players might also get immediate eligibility if all these things are true:

In 2018 or so, the NCAA might make some changes.

Some of the decision-makers in the NCAA’s big bureaucracy are pushing to allow players who reach a GPA benchmark to transfer without having to sit. The “academic exception,” as the NCAA calls it, would take effect in 2019-20. The NCAA has also kicked around an exception for players whose head coaches leave for other jobs.

Neither alteration would fundamentally change college sports. The academic exception would shift a small bit of power from coaches to players. It might lead to an increase in roster turnover. But teams are still bound by NCAA scholarship limits, and many (especially in major football and basketball) are now offering predominantly four-year scholarship deals that limit their flexibility to get into outright free agency.

All blanket transfer restrictions are bad.

The NCAA can’t know better than players and their families when it’s right for a player to leave a program.

The best thing to do would be to gut these rules altogether. That won’t happen any time soon, so reform advocates might have to take this little bit and be happy.