Degrees of disagreement over NCAA graduate transfer rule
PHOENIX — All over the desert this week, where five FBS conferences held spring meetings and a number of other coaches and administrators flew in for golf and lavish resort parties on the Fiesta Bowl’s dime, they were tying themselves in knots trying to explain the unexplainable.
The college athletics world has concluded that unpaid amateur athletes changing schools mid-stream — or even after earning an undergraduate degree — is a problem that needs to be fixed, so they’re scurrying to fix it. Things are going to change, probably within the next year or two, and the end result is almost certainly not going to make it easier for those athletes to exercise what, in any other area of academia, would seem to be a fundamental right.
Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson, expected to graduate May 17, became the latest to exercise that right on Thursday, announcing he would take his degree and final year of football eligibility elsewhere this fall.
But leave it to Akron coach Terry Bowden, who inherited his father’s gift of plain-speaking populism if nothing else, to see this madness the same way as most people who haven’t been entrenched in the bubble of college sports.
“They should let (transfers) play right away everywhere,” Bowden said. “They shouldn’t have to sit. The coaches leave. If we can go get a million-dollar contract somewhere else, why can’t the player leave? It’s no different than schools that want to get rid of a coach or a coach that wants to leave in the middle of his five-year contract. Nobody stops them. I don’t think it’s right.”
Though there are a host of issues the various NCAA committees must tackle in the next year, it appears that reforming transfer rules has risen to the top of the board.
And around the five-star Arizona Biltmore resort where coaches and college athletics officials met and socialized this week, Bowden’s viewpoint would have gone over like a spoiled bottle of Chateaux Margaux.
The reason? Because even though a 2012 study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that roughly one in three college students transfers at some point — that’s not athletes, just regular students — the college sports community has come to the collective view that an athlete who makes that same decision is somehow a problem that needs to be fixed.
Already, the NCAA has eliminated hardship waivers that allowed athletes to apply for immediate eligibility based on things like family illnesses. And because there is a two-year window for all of Division I to address transfers before it could possibly become an area for just the Power Five conferences to deal with in the autonomy structure, more changes are almost certainly coming.
“Student-athletes are transferring at rates higher than ever before, and it’s incumbent upon the membership to explore why and if there’s a better way to look at the issue,” UCLA athletics director Dan Guerrero said.
That’s fair, but it’s also not the crisis many make it out to be. In men’s basketball, where much of the hand-wringing over transfers has occurred, ESPN counted 604 transfers in 2014, with the numbers likely to exceed that this year.
So the fundamental question that needs to be asked is this: Is it really some major failure on the part of college athletics or an indictment on society that 1.72 players per Division I basketball program transferred last year? And even if rules made it more difficult to transfer, would it really make much difference?
“Everybody’s circumstances are different, and that’s why I don’t know if you’re ever going to change it,” said Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, who himself transferred from Missouri to Kentucky as a player.
“We have discussions: How do we slow it down? I don’t know if there’s an answer for that. I don’t know if just taking away the waivers is going to stop it. I think it’s just society in general now. I don’t know if there’s anyway to control what a kid is thinking in his mind that he maybe wants something different. And sometimes it may be what he needs. How do you decide that for somebody? I don’t think there’s any good answer to it or solution to it.”
But the NCAA is going to do whatever it can to bring those numbers down, pushing to return whatever sliver of college athletics can be salvaged back to its scholastic mission. In an era where the athletes are winning court cases and getting new financial benefits — Full Cost of Attendance stipends are about to become reality, and name, image and likeness payments could soon follow — they are going to use the academic enterprise as their biggest weapon in the ultimate legal battle for the soul of college sports.
If the NCAA can’t connect sports to academics in any real way, its argument to prevent a free market system could be dead on arrival.
“The transfer process needs a lot of work,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “The mid-year admission from high school will be in that mix. The post-graduate transfer will probably have some stipulations put around it. The process of transferring whether there’s a residence requirement, whether you can be on aid right away, whether you can do it more than once, whether you leave benefits at your old school to go to a new school. It needs to be a partnership but it isn’t a one-way street where the student can do whatever they want and the schools can’t do anything. There has to be a better partnership than that.”
It’s unclear exactly what will happen, but two things seem almost certain at this point: Transfer rules that vary from sport to sport will likely be standardized to some degree, and the graduate transfer exception is probably going away.
The latter will be controversial. Currently, athletes who earn their undergraduate degrees and have eligibility remaining are allowed to transfer and play right away.
The rule began solely with academics in mind but has evolved to the point where — at least in Division I basketball and the Football Bowl Subdivision — it is usually about athletics.
“There’s a lot of kids that are backups all their life and they’re thinking, ‘Hey I got my degree, I can go somewhere and have a chance to start,’ ” Cincinnati football coachTommy Tuberville said. “I think that’s good for a kid.”
Some recent developments, however, have touched nerves among coaches, particularly when Eastern Washington’s highly accomplished quarterback Vernon Adams took advantage of the rule to transfer to Oregon. If it seemed like one of the nation’s premier programs plugged a position hole by poaching from an FCS school, well, it’s hard to argue.
But even those who find it distasteful have taken advantage of the rule when necessary.
“Is it right? Probably not,” said Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter, who got quarterback Brandon Connette last year from Duke on a graduate transfer. “If I’m not involved in it, I don’t know that it’s a great rule. Then again, we’re probably going to sign another one this year.”
When the NCAA shuts down the loophole, it will cite statistics that show graduate transfers are not completing graduate degrees in large numbers. Essentially, football and basketball players who go that route are using the rule to finish their athletic eligibility, then leaving school to pursue other endeavors.
“There’s so much focus on professionalism and question about whether student-athletes are being exploited; in some cases it feels like it really is only about the athletics (with regard to transfers),” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. “That’s concerning to some of our (administrators).
“If you come at it from the point of view of, ‘Why should you care?’ and your view is student-athletes don’t care about academics, you won’t be persuaded by this, but there’s a lot of data that shows transfer student-athletes don’t do as well. It doesn’t relate to positive outcomes from an academic standpoint. If you don’t care, I won’t persuade you that it matters but people who make decisions on our campus care.”
But the graduate transfer is the opposite of exploitation. It gives them an incentive to fulfill their end of the bargain — to graduate — and then, in return, gives them the freedom to do what they want with any remaining eligibility.
What it also undoubtedly becomes, however, is a headache for coaches paranoid that other programs are going to scour their roster and recruit someone straight off their campus.
“I’ve taken transfers and I’ve lost transfers,” Bowden said. “Most of our coaches are so protective, and I don’t think it’s right. Ninety percent of what happens is a guy isn’t playing, they tell him he’s not going to be playing and he wants to go somewhere else and play. I just think if you want them to stay, you’ll find a way to play them.”
That sense of fundamental fairness is why Stanford’s David Shaw adamantly supports the current rule, even though just this year he’s lost running back Kelsey Young (to Boise State), fullback Patrick Skov (to Georgia Tech) and tight end Charlie Hopkins (to Virginia) to graduate transfers.
“I’d love to have those guys back,” Shaw said. “But then I look at it and say, ‘You know what? Would those guys be in position to where they’re kind of rotating in with us?’ If they have a chance to go be ‘the guy’ someplace else, they’ve done their part for me, for Stanford University. They’ve played their tails off, they’ve stayed the course with school, they graduated. You graduate from college in four years? No one should be able to tell you that you can’t go someplace else to play a fifth year.
“If they change this rule so now I can force a kid to stay with me and be my backup, I think that’s just cruel and unusual.”
Not unusual, though, for an industry that often decides what is right and fair during lavish weekends at five-star resorts that seem an awful lot like echo chambers.
This article was selected for educational purposes only.