Opinion: NCAA’s new transfer policy may be messy, frustrating for coaches, but above all, it will be fair

The grand irony of the NCAA’s long-awaited decision to change its transfer rules is that the wrong argument ultimately swung the debate. 

Somewhere along the way, it started to register with more and more fans of college sports, administrators and the athletes themselves that it was unfair for coaches to be able to change jobs freely, while athletes who want to change schools have to sit out a year before becoming eligible to play again. You can draw a direct line from that narrative taking hold to Wednesday’s decision by the NCAA Div. 1 council to give college athletes one free pass to transfer during their careers and play right away at the next school. 

But to truly understand why the NCAA’s previous rule was unfair, discriminatory and needed to be done away with long ago, look no further than this fact: Most college athletes already had the freedom to transfer without penalty before Wednesday.

It was only in five sports — football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and men’s hockey — that transfers were required to sit out a year. Why those sports? Because they’re the ones that generate revenue for schools. Nobody bothered to care what happened with the rest. 

The NCAA will now allow college athletes to transfer once without sitting out a year. (Photo: Keith Srakocic, AP)

In that sense, the NCAA’s decision — as clunky and drawn-out as it might have been — is a real victory for the rights of college athletes. It’s not complete freedom of movement, which is a right coaches, professors and regular students have, but it’s a much fairer and more sensible system than what has been in place for decades. 

The truth is, this should have been done long ago, but coaches and administrators are reluctant to do anything that takes control out of their hands. If your high six- or seven-figure job depended on the whims of 19, 20 and 21-year-olds, you too would probably be resistant to anything that fundamentally changed the field of play. 

Like on most issues, though, the NCAA slow-walked this one until pressure from the general public and even Congress became too great to ignore. Even after it was obvious for nearly a year that the NCAA was heading in this direction, there were last-minute issues raised about notification cut-off dates for an athlete declaring an intention to transfer and how a flood of transfers could impact a school’s Academic Progress Rating. The NCAA may be a finger-in-the-wind organization, but only after the breeze has been studied for months at a time and sent to three different subcommittees.

In the end, though, this is one of the more sensible and substantive policy moves the NCAA has made in many years. As much as coaches in high-profile sports might grumble about their new normal, the net result will be like any other rule change: Those who can adapt will thrive, and those who refuse will get passed by. 

Everyone deserves a mulligan

Separate from the fairness issue, there’s a legitimate conversation to be had about whether making it easier for players to transfer is good or bad for college sports as a whole. In anticipation of being granted their free pass, we’ve already seen more than 1,200 men’s college basketball players enter the transfer portal and could end up with a few hundred more by the time it’s all said and done. 

Not all of them will find landing spots at the Division I level, which is unfortunate. In many cases, fans won’t know who is on their team from year to year, which has some potential negative effects on interest and viewership. For coaches, it will undeniably be a headache to recruit a player as a freshman, lose them to transfer if they don’t play as much or as well as they hoped right away and watch them thrive at their next stop.

But if you still want the college part of college sports to matter, you have to accept that transferring is a natural consequence for many young people who leave home for the first time — regardless of whether they start out on a campus because of sports. 

According to a 2015 study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 37 percent of all students it tracked between 2008 and 2014 transferred at some point in their college career — way more than the 25 percent or so of Division I basketball players who will transfer this year.

Did you ever hear any outcry about a so-called transfer epidemic among biology or English students? Have you ever heard anyone say that we need to make the music major stay for at least two years to teach them to fight through adversity? Of course not.

Athletes are no different from other young people who choose one college for a specific reason, then realize once they’re on campus that they made the wrong decision.

It shouldn’t matter whether it’s because they’re homesick or the coach they wanted to play for was fired or they simply didn’t feel like they were getting what they wanted out of the experience. Everyone deserves a mulligan on a college decision they made when they were 17 or 18 years old. Otherwise, sign them to contracts and make them paid employees with very specific clauses for terminating the relationship. 

The other positive outcome of the rule change is eliminating the absurd bureaucracy surrounding transfers that had grown too big for the NCAA to control. For over a decade, the NCAA had granted some transfers the ability to play right away if they presented a hardship case, which was initially focused on those who had critically ill immediate family members and needed to be closer to home. Over time, what actually fit into the definition of a hardship became both wider and more vague to the point of seeming arbitrary.

More recently, we saw players arguing for waivers because their previous school wasn’t forthcoming with them about NCAA sanctions, or due to allegations of mistreatment and abuse at their former school. That led to an entire cottage industry of lawyers sprouting up to help build these cases, and the absurdity of NCAA staffers combing through medical records to determine just how sick somebody’s mother was. It was a huge waste of resources and time. 

Now you’ve got one rule that can be applied equally without the paperwork or need for somebody to judge the worthiness of someone else’s hardship. Everyone gets one free shot to make a change. Simple, clean, fair. 

You can’t say that about everything the NCAA does, even when it’s under pressure from all sides to act. This one took too long to get done but ended up in just the right place.

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