Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
I was about 1,600 words into a big newsletter on Monday night about Mel Tucker and the Pac-12 revenue gap, and then I fat-fingered the select-all function somehow and hit backspace riiiiight as Substack autosaved my newsletter, and welp, I guess God didn’t want me to share those takes with the universe.
So let’s talk about something else instead. Let’s talk about transfers.
We could be seeing the end of the waiting period era for football transfers
On Tuesday afternoon, The NCAA announced that the Transfer Waiver Working Group is considering a proposal that would allow all athletes, not just ones in selected sports, to be able to transfer without having to sit out a year.
Under the listed proposal, all athletes would be able to get a one-time transfer with immediate eligibility provided they:
- Receive a transfer release from their previous school.
- Leave their previous school academically eligible.
- Maintain their academic progress at the new school.
- Leave under no disciplinary suspension.
The first bullet point is potentially the most controversial. The actual transfer rules aren’t changing here, just the rules around waivers. That’s an important distinction since simply altering rules around waivers allows leaders to slightly circumvent the lengthy NCAA legislation process to get changes in place much more quickly. It’s possible this general idea could become a new NCAA policy by April and could go into effect for the 2020-2021 school year.
Why the sudden incentive to get this done quickly?
I think this quote from the NCAA release is pretty instructive:
“The current system is unsustainable. Working group members believe it’s time to bring our transfer rules more in line with today’s college landscape,” said working group chair Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the Mid-American Conference. “This concept provides a uniform approach that is understandable, predictable and objective. Most importantly, it benefits students.”
One, it’s important to see a commissioner from a smaller league recognize, on the record, that this current system needs to change. Athletic leaders from the Big Ten and ACC have championed immediate eligibility recently, but an administrator from a less-advantaged league carries a different sort of weight.
I think Steinbrecher is absolutely right. The current system, more or less, feels like “all football players must wait a year unless they hire Tom Mars”, which is hardly fair. And anybody trying to lecture the world about commitment and accountability in a world where head coaches, assistant coaches, and virtually everybody involved in college football can leave on a whim looks more and more hopelessly out of touch every time a Mel Tucker incident happens.
The fact is, athletes are either students or professionals. If they’re students, then they ought to have the same rights and privileges that other students have. Any regular ol’ student can leave and transfer to any other school that will take him, even if he’s on scholarship and even if his previous institution has invested a lot of time and money in his success. If they’re professionals, whose freedom of movement should be restricted on some level to ensure competitive balance or fair play, then those restrictions ought to be subject to collective bargaining.
The NCAA is adamant that the athletes are students. Well, students don’t have non-competes.
The current convoluted waiver system opens the NCAA to media attacks any time a kid loses an appeal. It confuses coaches, players, reporters, and fans. Nobody really likes it. A more unified policy across all sports buys the much-maligned NCAA a bit of goodwill at a time when they could really use it and gives more freedom for athletes. If that can get done without languishing in bylaw hell for the next three years, all the better.
Are only big schools going to benefit from this?
Former Miami head coach Mark Richt was probably the most prominent person to voice this opinion, but I’ve heard variations from this from lots of fans of G5 and FCS programs:
Poaching players already happens in college sports (perhaps most flagrantly in college basketball, but it also happens in college football and elsewhere), but if the threat of the one-year waiting period vanishes, what’s to stop big schools from simply poaching the best players from everybody else, right?
That’ll probably happen occasionally, but I don’t think it will become an epidemic. For one, we still have an 85 man scholarship limit, and many teams simply don’t have the roster flexibility to try and add tons of transfers. Every transfer you bring in means one less high schooler or JUCO you can sign, after all, and those kids will get more years in your system and culture than an outsider.
While I don’t doubt that an Alabama, Ohio State or Clemson will probably continue to look to the ol’ Transfer Portal to plug roster holes as they gear up for championship runs, I don’t think they will be the only ones to benefit. Remember, if you’re signing 22+ blue-chip recruits in each recruiting class, they’re not all going to play, and some of them are going to leave in search of more playing time.
Many of them are going to end up at either P5 programs that don’t typically sign elite recruits out of high school, like Northwestern or Indiana, or at G5 schools. And kids who are buried on the depth chart at Houston or Fresno State may look to the FCS ranks, etc. Hell, one of the reasons West Florida was able to win a DII national title so quickly was because they made effective use of transfer players. 51 players on that roster came from either a JUCO, a prep school, or another college, including multiple FBS schools.
Nicole Auerbach at The Athletic noted that at least one other conference leader from a smaller league understands the need for change:
Will smaller conferences and their representatives support this rule change, broadly speaking?
“I think so,” America East commissioner Amy Huchthausen said by phone on Tuesday. “Everyone recognizes that something has to be done. We’re at a point where we’ve tried to tinker with transfer issues at the edges and press all these different levers, and it hasn’t changed anything. If anything, it’s gotten people more frustrated with the system. So, maybe we fundamentally need to change the premise behind a transfer waiver.
Talent flows in all directions now. I think that would continue to happen even if transferring became easier.
So what happens now?
Like with all NCAA decisions, the fine print matters quite a bit.
For one, what happens with the 25/85 rule? That could also be for a change this spring:
Leaders at Kansas, and in the MAC, have suggested changing this rule. A 50/30 rule would make it much easier for a program that is suddenly well below the 85 scholarship limit to get back up to speed quickly. Right now, a program that gets clobbered in the transfer portal, or took too many JUCOs that didn’t pan out, might need to take several years to get back to 85 scholarships.
I’m personally wary of the unintended consequences of changing that rule (if you’re a coach who thinks they might be fired in a year or two, are you going to recruit with restraint, or are you going to make sure you sign 30 kids, future be damned?), but I also understand the viability of transfer reform might hinge on allowing programs to have more roster flexibility to fill holes from those transfers.
I imagine I’ll be writing about the possible implications of that rule change again before April.
As Auerbach and others have pointed out, there’s plenty of other fine print details that would need to be sorted out. If a player transfers, which school needs to absorb the APR hit? If the immediate eligibility is predicated on coaches releasing the athlete, will coaches simply refuse to let them leave? Will conferences have to decide on individual policies?
The biggest question is probably what to do about potential tampering. Given how slow and convoluted the NCAA investigative process is, does anybody trust that the organization can effectively police and punish coaches who are found to be tampering? Will leagues be able to fill that void?
I don’t think I have a great answer to those questions. Maybe you do! I’d love to hear them.
Even with some details still TBA, I think this is the right direction to go in
I’m generally inclined to think concerns over competitive balance are overblown. This sport has never really had it, and I don’t think anybody with power is really serious about trying to create some. I think it is more likely that football teams across all levels would benefit from this, although it’s probably true that FCS teams would be more at risk for more negative competitive outcomes.
But setting all of that aside for a moment, letting athletes have the freedom to change their mind and go somewhere else is just the right thing to do.
So kudos for athletic leaders in finally taking a step in putting the student’s interests first.
Coaches are paid millions of dollars to figure all the competitive stuff out. I think they’ll be fine. Giving a little more power to the athlete isn’t a bad thing.
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Questions, comments, story ideas, transfer portal access and more can be sent to MattBrownOhio@Gmail.com or to @MattBrownEP on Twitter dot com