Sports

The Big 12's Walk-On Transfer Rule Is About Control, Not Education

The Big 12's refusal to change a walk-on transfer rule that would allow Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield another year of eligibility demonstrates the real priorities in big-time campus athletics.
June 2, 2016, 6:25pm
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We've known for a long time that the people who run college athletics are exploitative beyond belief, but they rarely come out and directly reveal their true intentions.

Enter Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby.

The Big 12 currently has a very dumb rule that forces a walk-on at one school to sit out and lose a year of eligibility if they choose to leave and walk on at another school. This is a step beyond the very dumb transfer rule that forces scholarship players to sit out when they transfer—but at least those players sign employment contracts in the form of scholarship tenders and have some sort of formal, binding agreement with their schools. Walk-ons (caution: NCAA propaganda talking point alert) really are just students who happen to play sports, and are paying their schools for the opportunity.

[Read More: What Does The Pac-12's Embrace Of eSports Mean For Amateurism?](We've known for a long time that the people who run college athletics are exploitative beyond belief, but they rarely come out and directly reveal their true intentions. Enter Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. The Big 12 currently has a very dumb rule that forces a walk-on at one school to sit out and lose a year of eligibility if they choose to leave and walk on at another school. This is a step beyond the very dumb transfer rule that forces scholarship players to sit out when they transfer—but at least those players sign employment contracts in the form of scholarship tenders and have some sort of formal, binding agreement with their schools, whereas walk-ons (caution: NCAA propaganda talking point alert) really are just students who happen to play sports. Read More: TK The walk-on rule is rarely an issue, but it came up this year when Texas Tech walk-on-turned-Oklahoma walk-on Baker Mayfield rose to stardom. Mayfield had to sit out in 2014, despite the fact that neither his previous school nor his new school recruited him. Changing the rule would give Mayfield another year of eligibility. So, of course, with a 5-5 vote, the Big 12 schools voted it down. Let Bowlsy explain: https://twitter.com/jake_trotter/status/738138406333480961 The fact that this is allowed is incredible in its own right. Consider the logic: The Big 12 is punishing players who have to pay their way to school because coaches are scared that those players could eventually get really good and earn a scholarship. That's a whole new level of paranoia in a sport that's full of it. Coaches could just give their walk-ons scholarships if they think they're good enough to earn one down the line, but the NCAA only allows 85 scholarships per team. So rather than have to worry about a walk-on getting poached and becoming a star like Mayfield—something that will rarely happen—coaches have instead decided to screw every potential walk-on athlete wanting a fresh start or a better shot at playing time elsewhere. This is exactly the same as not allowing a campus debate team member—completely untethered by a scholarship—to debate for a year after they've transferred schools. Viewed through the lenses of education and common sense, it makes absolutely no sense. Given how unreasonably this rule restrains trade, a walk-on could probably sue the conference, and very likely win. In the wake of a barrage of antitrust lawsuits against the NCAA and the power conferences, this is supposed to be an era of deregulation; instead, the Big 12 is opening itself up to a potential suit over walk-ons. The failure to change this rule is the latest in a long line of examples that show deregulation never actually arrived. Two years ago, the NCAA passed its )

The walk-on rule is rarely an issue, but it came up this year when Texas Tech walk-on-turned-Oklahoma walk-on quarterback Baker Mayfield rose to stardom. Mayfield had to sit out in 2014, despite the fact that neither his previous school nor his new school recruited him. Changing the rule would give Mayfield another year of eligibility.

So, of course, with a 5-5 vote, the Big 12 chose the status quo. Let Bowlsy explain why:

Bowlsby: opposition to the walk-on rule change didn't want Big 12 teams luring other team's walk-ons with the promise of scholarships

— Jake Trotter (@Jake_Trotter)June 1, 2016

The fact that this is allowed is incredible. Consider the logic: The Big 12 is punishing players who have to pay their way to school because coaches are scared that those players could eventually get really good and earn a scholarship. That's a whole new level of paranoia in a sport that's full of it.

Coaches could just give their walk-ons scholarships if they think they're good enough to earn one down the line, but the NCAA only allows 85 scholarships per team. So rather than have to worry about a walk-on getting poached and becoming a star like Mayfield—something that will rarely happen—coaches have instead decided to screw every potential walk-on athlete wanting a fresh start or a better shot at playing time elsewhere.

This is exactly the same as not allowing a campus debate team member—completely untethered by a scholarship—to debate for a year after they've transferred schools. Viewed through the lenses of education and common sense, it makes absolutely no sense.

Given how unreasonably this rule restrains trade, a walk-on could probably sue the conference, and very likely win. In the wake of a barrage of antitrust lawsuits against the NCAA and the power conferences, this is supposed to be an era of deregulation; instead, the Big 12 is opening itself up to a potential suit over walk-ons.

The failure to change this rule is the latest in a long line of examples that show deregulation never actually arrived.

Two years ago, the NCAA passed its "autonomy" structure, which would supposedly give athletes a voice, and, predicated on the idea that the bigger schools wanted to give athletes more freedom and relax a number of restrictions and hardships placed on athletes, like excessive time demands and forbidding athletes from profiting off their own names. That hasn't happened.

"This is frustrating for us," Oklahoma center Ty Darlington, who serves on the NCAA committee trying to make changes, said in January. "What are we doing today that's significant? When I leave here today, what have I done to significantly impact the student-athlete experience? Nothing."

TFW you're significantly impacting the student-athlete experience. Photo by Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In fact, there have been more debates since the start of 2016 about increasing restrictions on athletes than on decreasing them. Southeastern Conference schools, worried about losing recruits to northern schools, convinced their allies to vote for a ban on "satellite camps" that help lower-level prospects earn scholarships. (That ban was eventually overturned.)

Now, many coaches are pushing to end a rule that currently allows players who have already graduated and have athletic eligibility remaining to transfer to another school without sitting out for a year. This is one of the few rules that gives players power over coaches, so of course the coaches are trying to come up with bogus reasons to squash it.

The problem with the NCAA's ersatz deregulation is that it's only for show. The association and the conferences want as much power as possible; the schools competing on the field don't trust each other; and nobody wants to pay athletes anything close to a market rate. Rules restricting athletes make all of that possible; getting rid of them could lead to a very slippery slope.

That's especially true when major college sports function as a professional league, all while hiding behind amateurism and education. The coaches and universities rightfully recognize that they are part of a business. No business wants its workers—even unpaid walk-on labor!—to be able to jump to a competitor at any moment. With regards to satellite camps, no business wants a competitor passing out flyers at their booth at the career fair.

Thing is, if you're a business with paid employees, you can restrain trade to a certain degree through collective bargaining under established labor law. But if you claim that major college sports are simply an extracurricular activity taking place within educational institutions, you don't get to treat walk-on athlete students like contractually-obligated employees just because it's convenient.

The NCAA's best and last defense against antitrust lawsuits has been pretending that the amateur college sports economy is necessary in order to promote education. That's what helped the association essentially win its appeal in the Ed O'Bannon case—a federal court worried, on the basis of no actual evidence, that "cash sums" to athletes would distract from their educational experiences.

In order to keep this Potemkin village from blowing over, however, the NCAA and its schools need to keep pretending that big-time campus sports aren't actually a big business. They need the thousands of people involved in college athletics to talk one way while acting another.

Unfortunately for the Big 12, Bowlsby couldn't do that when discussing the walk-on rule. It's hard to blame him: even for an accomplished boardroom politician, extreme cognitive dissonance can be pretty unsustainable. And what could be more extreme than defending your price-fixing racketeering as pro-school, all while making it more difficult for some overlooked athletes to play their way into tuition payments?

Mayfield and other walk-ons deserve better. But as college sports "deregulates" to better serve athletes—ahem—they probably shouldn't count on it.