It’s obvious to anyone who cares enough to look that major college sports are fundamentally unjust. The NCAA rakes in billions of dollars while the players get nothing. Most Division I athletes aren’t even guaranteed a four-year education—tear a ligament or get passed on the depth chart and your scholarship can vanish after a single season. But ask a bunch of coaches, and they’ll tell you that something else is rotten in college athletics. The problem with NCAA sports, they believe, is that the servants aren’t indentured enough.
So far this offseason, around 450 Division I basketball players have announced they’re changing schools. This turnover has imperiled the sport, says Marshall University basketball coach Tom Herrion, who calls it a “transfer epidemic.” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski says that “[k]ids don't stick to the school that they pick and they want instant gratification.” South Carolina’s Frank Martin agrees: “Kids are not being taught to stay the course, be patient, to learn how to work and improve.” Adds Alabama’s Anthony Grant, “I don’t think it’s something any coach will tell you is good for the game.”
Let’s examine what this epidemic looks like. Transfer rates for Division I men’s basketball players have hovered between 9 and 11 percent each offseason over the last decade. By comparison, a 2010 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling indicated that 1 in 3 college students transfer during their scholastic careers. The only difference I’m seeing here is that English lit professors aren’t grousing about students running off with their copies of Moby Dick.
This transfer epidemic, it turns out, is just the fever dream of a gaggle of overheated coaches. Actually, it’s more disturbing than that. All of these complaints about impatient, instant-gratification-seeking athletes obscure college sports’ real transfer scandal. The NCAA is America’s worst workplace—at least they pay you a little something at Wal-Mart. Now, coaches are trying to exert still more control over one of the most highly controlled groups of people in existence. How’s this for a deal: We’re going to call you greedy even though you’re not getting paid, and we’re going to try our hardest to keep you from leaving. One, two, three—team!
Basketball and football coaches might not want to admit it, but college athletes have to pay a penalty for switching schools. Under most circumstances, Division I transfers in football, baseball, men’s ice hockey, and men’s and women’s basketball must sit out a year before they can play again. The NCAA claims this year-off requirement is a result of those sports being “historically academically underperforming.” In practice, that restriction helps suppress player movement in the highest-revenue sports, creating a more consistent, fan-friendly product and giving coaches a greater ability to control the inflow and outflow of talent.
Coaches are actually fine with transfers, so long as they’re the ones setting the terms. To manage the NCAA’s scholarship limits—Division I basketball programs can have up to 13 scholarship players; FBS football programs can have 85—coaches regularly push out the guys at the end of the bench to make way for more-promising talent. One common tactic is to tell a player that he won’t get any playing time if he sticks around. Every college athlete understands what that means: If you want pro scouts to see you play, then you better go somewhere else—oh, and please leave your scholarship behind on your way out the door.
Sometimes coaches are more explicit. In May, forward Jared Drew revealed that Saint Louis coach Jim Crews had cut him from the basketball team without warning. Though Drew could’ve appealed his axing to a body outside the athletic department, the best he could’ve hoped for was to have his scholarship restored. As the indispensable NCAA bylaw blogger John Infante explains, that’s why athletes so rarely instigate appeals: A school can't force a coach to give someone a roster spot. More than anything else, it’s this control over playing time that gives a coach the ultimate authority over everyone on his team. (It’s also worth noting that when athletes do go ahead and appeal these sorts of athletic department decisions, it rarely seems to work—ask former St. Joseph’s basketball player Todd O’Brien.)
Loyalty is of absolute importance in top college programs—it’s just up to the coaches to decide who’s supposed to be loyal to whom. Last year, freshman forward Jarrod Uthoff told Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan that he wanted to leave the team. Ryan, in turn, decreed that he would not give Uthoff permission to contact any university in the Big Ten (Wisconsin’s conference) or the ACC (the conference the Big Ten matches up against in an annual tournament). He also denied Uthoff a release to three additional universities: Marquette, Iowa State, and Florida.
Think about that: NCAA coaches have the power to block an athlete from getting a scholarship at an entirely different university. As Greg Bishop detailed in a recent New York Times piece, “if a coach does not grant an athlete a release, the player must forfeit any scholarship opportunity, pay his own way to the new university and sit out the next season.” These are the perverted values of the NCAA—a player can lose out on a future scholarship because his ex-coach says, essentially, If I can’t have you, nobody on this list can either. Remind me again what the crisis is supposed to be here?
Coaches can block a player’s “permission to contact” for a number of dumb reasons—to prevent a former assistant coach from “poaching” talent, for one—or for no discernible reason at all. In the case of Jarrod Uthoff, Ryan clearly wanted to avoid a future match-up with his ex-player, lest he pass along the deepest, darkest secrets of the Badgers’ playbook. (For that reason, most Division I athletic conferences have rules that make it very difficult for an athlete to transfer to a conference rival.) Michigan basketball coach John Beilein has admitted this reasoning openly, saying, “We don’t want a young man to take our playbook and go to the next school. It just doesn’t make sense.” Now, recall that the NCAA’s stated purpose in having transfers sit out a year is to allow them to adjust academically. Football and basketball coaches’ strategic, playbook-protecting blockades reveal that this is a lie—that the supposedly academic rationale behind transfer restrictions is a cover for purely athletic considerations.
After a massive public outcry, Ryan and Wisconsin partially relented, granting Uthoff a release to any university outside the Big Ten. In the end, the player defied his coach and enrolled at Iowa, foregoing a scholarship so he could go to a Big Ten school. "We can afford to pay for my education for a year," Uthoff told ESPN. In that regard, Uthoff is a lucky guy—a whole lot of college students don’t have that kind of financial freedom. (I know of just one other high-level player, former Tennessee and Kansas State running back Bryce Brown, who has disregarded a coach’s blockade and paid his own way at a new school.)
Ryan, for his part, did not apologize for restricting Uthoff’s college choices. "What I did was so typical,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis. “I've got coaches calling me laughing and going, 'What rock did these people come out of not knowing this is the way it's done?' "