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The NCAA's Latest Petty Move to Screw Over Athletes

The NCAA says it wants to foster the education of its student-athletes, so why is there a push to punish student-athletes who graduate early?
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

'Tis the season for talk of needless reforms in college football. With spring practices wrapping up and the regular season still months away, coaches and administrators can't keep themselves from blathering about something, no matter how preposterous. And this year is no exception, with everything from earnest proposals for reinstating freshman ineligibility to whining about satellite camps.

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But chief among these bad ideas is the talk of eliminating the graduate transfer rule, which allows athletes who have completed their undergraduate coursework before the end of their athletic eligibility—in other words, graduating in three or four years—to transfer without sitting out a year. Here's Pac-12 Conference commissioner Larry Scott, who thinks the rule is being abused:

Larry Scott among those concerned about graduate transfer exception. "The # of graduate transfers isn't mirroring the # of graduate degrees"
— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) April 28, 2015

Scott is among a group of administrators that wants to get back to the National Collegiate Athletic Association's supposed, self-professed educational roots, yet supports the elimination of the one rule that rewards athletes for going above and beyond in their academic pursuits, all to protect highly-compensated sports coaches.

Like I said, it's a bad idea.

Many coaches and administrators want to eliminate the rule because they say it's an abuse of the system. How so? Athletes who take advantage of this rule aren't actually graduating from graduate school; moreover, they're making their graduate transfer decisions based on—gasp!— athletics, as opposed to getting, say, a MBA.

In other words, college athletes are acting a bit like their free agent professional counterparts.

The Kentucky Seven, all of whom declared for the NBA Draft after the end of this year's March Madness. Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

In fairness to Scott and others, the argument against the graduate transfer rule would make a bit more sense if the majority of big-time high school athletes selected their undergraduate schools based on academics. Thing is, they don't. Many of their decisions—not to mention what happens in the classroom once athletes arrive on campus—are heavily influenced by sports.


No, the real reason Scott and others want to dump the graduate transfer rule is because it (slightly) inconveniences coaches—who, for once, do not have absolute power over their rosters, nor the necessary incentives to make players stay. And broadly speaking, it's no surprise that those with the power and money in college athletics will fight hard against even the slightest inkling of athletes gaining some sort of upper hand.

From a more narrow perspective, however, college sports powerbrokers would be wise to leave the graduate transfer rule alone. Why? NCAA rules are all about controlling athletes, and it is that control that has gotten schools in trouble in with the law. Northwestern University football players won the right to unionize against their school in part because the transfer restrictions in their scholarship tenders looked a lot like a non-compete clause in an employment contract. Eliminating the graduate transfer rule would just be yet another extension of that non-compete, making it that much easier for football teams at other schools teams to follow Northwestern's lead and be ruled employees.

The NCAA's membership is at a crossroads in that schools want to restrict athletes' rights, both to help them profit and to take a faux "educational" stance, but these restrictions could be devastating in federal antitrust court. Beyond the Northwestern unionization case, the NCAA's restrictions were brought up during the Ed O'Bannon trial—working against the NCAA and its member institutions by showing just how different the rules for athletes are compared to the rules for regular students, something that further dents the NCAA's increasingly futile claim that its athletes are mere students who just happen to participate in extracurricular sports because they're good at, say, playing middle linebacker.


NCAA President Mark Emmert, presumed human. Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Athletes already are subject to certain curfews and drug tests that are not applied to the rest of the student body, and they already can't play their sport for a year if they transfer, while other students are free to participate in any extracurricular after transferring. Restricting a player who graduates—which, again, is supposed to be the entire point of the multibillion-dollar big time colleges sports industry, at least when the NCAA is arguing for a de facto antitrust exemption and a bushel of tax breaks—from playing a sport at another institution brings the absurdity to another level.

Moreover, both changing the graduate transfer rule and simply talking about said change could make the courts and the public more aware of "run-offs"—players who are told by their coaches that they have to transfer to help their team's roster situation, but still have to sit out for a year. University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino is famous for doing this, and it often happens when new coaches take over, or when coaches oversign. This is common practice in college sports, but it is rarely explicitly discussed.

In recent weeks, a number of cases have highlighted how much the elimination of the graduate transfer would hurt players. While many transfers in general—like Brigham Young University basketball player Isaac Neilson—are described as voluntary, they are actually requested by coaches. That is especially true of graduate transfers, who have the eligibility to play for a final season, but haven't performed to the level that coaches want to keep them around. Without the graduate transfer rule, they would have nowhere to go.

Most graduate transfers have redshirted, and they would not be able to redshirt again; thus they would not be able to play anywhere for their final year of eligibility. While having to leave your school like a standard "run-off" transfer, such as Neilson, graduate run-offs like University of Michigan senior Max Bielfeldt would be in worse shape. With the elimination of the graduate transfer rule, he would not be able to play anywhere next year, despite the fact that the Wolverines chose not to renew his scholarship and he still has a year remaining of eligibility.

Under the new rules, it's also unlikely current Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson would be in the position he is in today. Wilson took advantage of the graduate transfer rule to leave North Carolina State University for the University of Wisconsin, where he starred. Wilson says he did not choose to leave NC State's football team, but rather was kicked off the squad.

There's no denying that coaches have the upper hand when it comes to player transfers in general, and that makes it all the more petty when someone like Mike Krzyzewski calls the lone kind of non-restrictive transfers in college sports "a farce." In the short term, eliminating graduate transfers might make Krzyzewski's job—and Scott's—a little bit easier, since schools wouldn't have to worry about their rivals landing good players who have left or been run-off. In the long run, however, the NCAA would be hastening its own demise. The more restrictive the association makes its rules, the more damaging it is to the collegiate model of amateurism, a model that ultimately cannot survive by claiming to promote education while punishing academic success.