College Sports’ Transfer Rules Are Shockingly Unethical and Unfair

The stadium scene.
July 2 2013 8:09 AM

The NCAA Has Truly Lost Its Mind

College coaches are allowed to block their former players from getting scholarships at new schools. And that’s not all …

Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan is irate as he yells at an official in the second half. Wisconsin and Syracuse met in the early game of the evening.
Bo Ryan yells at an official during a basketball game on March 22, 2012. The Wisconsin coach’s indignation on transfer matters is as convincing as the thrice-wed Newt Gingrich’s defense of traditional marriage.

Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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?' "

College coaches have a weird sense of humor—man, isn’t it hilarious, how easy it is to put an insolent player in line? Vanderbilt basketball coach Kevin Stallings has blocked a player named Sheldon Jeter from transferring to Pittsburgh, and Jeter says his appeal to school officials was denied. And the New York Times’ Bishop tells the story of Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt, who decided he wanted to transfer after losing his starting position in the aftermath of a knee injury and a concussion. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy told the press that Lunt was “leaving on good terms.” Gundy then proceeded to block him, without explanation, from transferring to nearly 40 different schools, including three of Lunt’s preferred options. Though Gundy eventually lifted those restrictions, the quarterback said in a recent interview that the damage had been done—that he’d lost contact with the schools Gundy had blocked, meaning he had no choice but to go elsewhere.

Given all the tools they have to tie players down, why are the men on the sidelines so adamant that players are the ones causing a transfer crisis? First, the coaches who preside over college basketball’s minnows are peeved that a small but increasing number of their players are transferring to major programs in search of better competition and more exposure. Golly gee willikers, what a scandal—now, excuse me while I recite the long list of coaches who’ve moved up from small schools to large ones. (Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight, Bill Self, Bob Huggins …)

Second, college coaches are upset about a couple of exceptions—one for players with sick relatives, the other for guys who’ve already graduated and are seeking master’s degrees—that allow certain qualifying athletes to switch schools and play right away. Most famously, the graduate transfer exception allowed ex-N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson to play his final season for Wisconsin without sitting out a year.

The grad student exception is a rare case of NCAA sanity, a reward for athletes who’ve fulfilled their scholastic mission. According to data compiled by Jeff Goodman, this maneuver is quite rare—a bit less than 7 percent of Division I men’s basketball transfers in 2012, 30 players overall, were instantly eligible thanks to the grad student rule.

As far as coaches are concerned, this tiny trickle of instant eligibility is a gigantic problem that is ruining their lives. Arizona State’s Herb Sendek—who’s clearly bitter that one of his best players used the grad student rule to leave for Indiana—told ESPN.com’s Andy Katz that the “rule in most cases is not being used as intended and is clearly adding to the widespread free agency in college basketball.” Marshall’s Herrion added that the only solution to this catastrophe is to make every player sit out a year—no exceptions. And our old friend Bo Ryan explained to Katz that we need to think about ethics. Taking advantage of eligibility exceptions "isn't what college athletics was meant to be,” he says. “How about the guy leaving his teammates and the coaching staff that developed him?”

To call Ryan a hypocrite would be an insult to hypocrisy. The Wisconsin coach’s indignation on transfer matters is as convincing as the thrice-wed Newt Gingrich’s defense of traditional marriage. In 1999, Ryan signed a five-year contract at Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Two seasons into that deal, he left to take the head job at Wisconsin–Madison—a move that, according to UW–Milwaukee’s athletic director, felt “like a divorce” to the players he cast aside. In Madison, meanwhile, a guard named Ricky Bower decided that he wanted to pull a Ryan and leave Wisconsin for BYU. Ryan was eligible to coach his new team right away. Bower had to sit out a year before he could suit up again—you know, NCAA rules and all. Is that what college athletics are meant to be, Bo?

In fairness to cranks like Ryan, college basketball coaches have it tougher than they used to. The NBA’s one-and-done rule means it’s impossible to keep the best players on campus. Toss in a bunch of transfers, and college hoops rosters have become ever-mutating beasts. That’s a hard reality for a control freak coach to adjust to: I’m supposed to let all of these guys just … walk out?

Kentucky’s John Calipari seems alone among his colleagues in recognizing that transfers are not evil. Calipari may profess to hate the one-and-done rule, but he recognizes that he’ll have a new team every year, and that he needs a plan to win in that climate. When forward Kyle Wiltjer recently told Calipari he wanted to explore transferring, the coach didn’t block any schools. Rather, he gave Wiltjer his unconditional support. Sure, Wiltjer is kind of expendable now that Kentucky has a historically great recruiting class coming in. And yes, Calipari has a history of “encouraging” subpar players to leave the Wildcats’ program. But what can I say—if you’re looking for justice and fairness in college sports, this is as good as it gets.

So who will ultimately win this tug of war over players’ rights to enroll where they please? I’ll give you one guess.

Back in January, a number of media outlets reported that all of these transfer rules could be changing forever. The NCAA was weighing a new proposal that would allow any Division I athlete with a GPA of 2.6 or higher to transfer and be eligible immediately. Changing schools without penalty—it’s not just for grad students anymore.

Every college basketball site opined on the “drastic shake-up” that would result from this rule change. Coaches would be forced to treat their players better, lest they seek out other opportunities. Players would essentially become free agents, gaining the power they’ve long been denied. Imagine the possibilities!

Those possibilities, it turns out, were indeed imaginary. Months after those initial reports, nobody (except John Infante) seems to have noticed that this remarkable proposal quietly died back in April. “Based on the fact that the number of four-year transfer student-athletes was not overly significant, the subcommittee noted that wholesale changes of the transfer rules do not appear to be necessary,” explained the NCAA’s Leadership Council Transfer Issues Subcommittee.

The NCAA’s report did have some good news—an indication that the subcommittee “would like to further explore the effectiveness of the permission to contact requirement.” Translation: It’s possible that they could end the absurd practice of allowing a vindictive coach to control whether a transfer like Jarrod Uthoff can get a scholarship at his new school. In the meantime, college basketball coaches continue their push to eradicate that pesky grad student exception. And what about the so-called student athletes, whose playing careers and potential livelihoods are at stake here? Don’t bother asking them what they think. As usual, they have no say at all.

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