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The NCAA May Loosen Transfer Rules That Shouldn't Even Exist

The association is considering making it easier for athletes to switch schools—​but so long as players are considered students and not employees, they shouldn't be restricted in the first place.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to college athlete transfers, the National Collegiate Athletic Association may be on the cusp of—finally—doing something right. Earlier this week, the Division I Council Transfer Working Group announced that it's considering altering current rules that limit the ability of players to move from one school to another. The most notable rules up for consideration include those:

  • Requiring athletes to get permission from their current schools to speak with other schools;
  • Barring those athletes from receiving a scholarship from their new school without first getting said permission.


Changes to both rules—and by changes, I mean scrapping them completely—are long overdue. As is, they are arbitrary, capricious, and philosophically absurd, giving coaches and athletic departments undue, unearned power over unpaid students seeking a better situation elsewhere.

Case in point? Former Kansas State football player Corey Sutton, who earlier this year requested permission to contact 35 different schools—none of them in the Big 12 nor on the Wildcats' future schedule, not that either of those facts should really matter—and was denied by coach Bill Snyder, who subsequently defended his indefensible decision by publicly smearing Sutton as someone who had failed a pair of drug tests.

Following an avalanche of bad press and Sutton calling him a "slave master" in a Tweet, Snyder apologized and relented, freeing the 19-year-old wide receiver to transfer to Appalachian State. Still, Sutton's perfectly reasonable, utterly normal desire to switch schools never should have been subject to Snyder's whims in the first place. The NCAA and its members schools have no business blocking, steering, and otherwise lording over athlete transfers. Not so long as they simultaneously claim that athletes are simply regular students who happen to be very good at sports, and not de facto athletic department and school marketing employees who ought be entitled to workplace rights and protections.

Coaches like Bill Snyder have the power to lord over athlete transfers. Why? Photo by Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Indeed, the NCAA's current transfer rules are a prime example of how the powers-that-be in major college sports are primarily concerned with having and eating their cake. On one hand, the association will tell anyone who will listen—most notably, federal judges overseeing antitrust lawsuits—that it's perfectly legal and acceptable for schools to collude and limit player compensation to scholarships and small cost-of-attendance stipends, because athletes are students and amateurs and not professionals and blah blah blah.


On the other hand, current transfer rules amount to non-compete clauses, in which employees agree not to join a competing firm for a specified period of time after leaving an employer. Non-compete clauses are generally negotiated, subject to state law, and—this is the key point—part of employer-employee contracts, even when they're arguably abused to depress wages. They are not part of the usual relationship between a typical school and a typical undergraduate student; to the contrary, more than a third of all college students transfer, and they're not required to seek permission to speak to new institutions nor receive scholarships there.

Imagine you're a drama major at Duke. You decide you'd rather be at Yale. Maybe you like the school's fine arts department better; maybe you're following a girlfriend or boyfriend; maybe you just really want to live in New Haven, Connecticut. When you go to the dean's office to arrange the necessary paperwork, you're told it's a no-go—your academic advisor has nixed the move, and both schools have agreed to abide by her desire. Oh, and if you want to transfer to Stanford instead, maybe she'll consider it.

If all of the above sounds ridiculous, well, that's the point. It's just as ridiculous for athletes. So any potential change is welcome. That said, the Transfer Working Group's announcement likely isn't coincidental, nor coming from an enlightened, kind-hearted place. As is the case with almost every recent athlete-friendly NCAA rule change—unlimited meals and snacks, the return of guaranteed four-year scholarships, the aforementioned cost-of-attendance stipends—it's almost certainly the result of bad press and ongoing legal pressure.

As such, don't expect schools to voluntarily surrender any more power over athletes than they feel is absolutely necessary. To wit: the NCAA also is considering changes to its rules governing graduate transfers—that is, athletes who have earned their undergraduate degrees but still have eligibility remaining and want to play at another school while pursuing graduate degrees.

Unlike undergraduate transfers, who generally have to sit out a year of athletic competition at their new schools, graduate transfers usually are allowed to play immediately. (A recent case in which Pitt basketball player Cameron Johnson had to publicly shame his school into allowing him to play at North Carolina was a notable exception). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Transfer Working Group is considering ways to encumber and restrict the practice, both by requiring teams to count transfers against their scholarship limits for two years, regardless of whether the player is still at the school, and penalizing coaches for recruiting potential graduate transfers.

Again: this is ridiculous. Graduate transfers shouldn't be bogged down with extra rules and restrictions, nor see their options chilled and limited because some coach somewhere wants an extra hammer to hold over his price-fixed workforce; to the contrary, undergraduate transfers should be just as free to play immediately, the same as any walk-on student would be. Unless, of course, the NCAA wants to admit that revenue sport athletes aren't like other students, and are actually working demanding (and lucrative) campus jobs.

If that comes to pass, then sure: draw up non-compete clauses. Draft language that forbids tampering by rival schools. Hire some contract lawyers, and stack the deck as much as you can. Just give athletes the corresponding, All-American freedom to negotiate, stack back, and receive something in return—like, say, a salary with a buyout if they decide to take their talents elsewhere. Quid pro quo. None of this is particularly novel, nor hard. School athletic departments already do it all the time. Just ask coaches.