NCAA Transfer Restrictions Don't Benefit Student Athletes

In the not-too-distant past, when an NCAA student athlete (SA) matriculated to a certain college, fans of those teams could generally expect to see the growth and development in that young man or woman, both personally and athletically, over a four-year period.  However, recent reports in revenue-generating Division 1 sports (primarily football and basketball) reflect that more and more SAs are switching their school of choice at some point in their collegiate careers.  The decision to transfer is a rapidly growing trend and, because of unnecessary NCAA restrictions on such activity, is essentially forcing those student athletes who decide that a switch is what is best for them, to remain in school for longer than he or she may have originally intended.

When an SA receives a financial scholarship to play a sport for a particular Division 1 NCAA school, they are required to sign a National Letter of Intent (NLI).  The NLI serves as a contract of sorts, as it commits the SA to the college of his or her choice, and prevents any other athletic programs from recruiting the SA.  Sounds fair enough, right?

However, once that SA decides that it may be time to leave that school for almost any reason (be it academic, geographic, personnel change on the coaching staff, general dissatisfaction, whatever), and wishes to continue playing that sport for another Division 1 program, under NCAA rules, that SA generally must first obtain a release from his or her NLI from his or her current school.  Once the release is granted (which is commonplace, subject to possible restrictions described below), the SA is then required to sit out a full year prior to becoming eligible to play for the SA’s new school (the SA still has four total years of eligibility to play the sport, notwithstanding the year off).  Further, many Division 1 conferences impose even deeper restrictions, mandating that the SA sit out two years if the transfer takes place with the team’s own conference. 

Worse still, because of the NLI, the SA’s original college can actually impose additional restrictions on where the SA may transfer (e.g., a geographic rival, or a team on the schedule in coming years), further limiting his or her options.  Whenever imposed, any such restrictions typically come across as petty and vindictive, because that’s precisely what they are.  While, in theory, an SA can decide to transfer to any school he or she wishes to attend without getting a release from the NLI, under such circumstances the SA would no longer be eligible for a scholarship (i.e., the SA is now paying his or her own way), and must still sit out the full year (exceptions exist if the SA transfers down to a non-Division 1 conference).

So, the overarching question: why does the NCAA impose such restrictions?  Is it really in the SA’s best interests to force the one-year sit-out period?  Ostensibly, the rule was designed to prevent coaches from continuing to recruit SAs after they’ve executed a NLI.  The idea being, if an SA has to sit out a year as part of a transfer, they may think twice about doing so, and coaches will be less likely to “poach” if they know the SA won’t be eligible to play immediately. 

Whether the rule’s intent is being fulfilled is questionable.  But guess what?  None of it seems to matter.  In the mere days following the conclusion of the 2014-2015 men’s Division 1 NCAA basketball season, well over 300 Division 1 male basketball SAs announced their intention to transfer, with several more expected to make a similar decision.  SAs have decided that finding the right “fit” for them (again, for whatever reason) makes sitting out a year worthwhile.  And most of the SAs appear to be taking enough recruiting trips and visiting with enough programs that poaching doesn’t really seem to be a part of the equation.

So, if SAs are leaving even without being poached, then why continue to make them sit out a year?  And, more to the point, if an SA wants to leave for greener pastures, whether as a result of poaching or not, why is that so wrong?  Don’t all coaches and administrators at these schools have such rights?  More to the point, don’t all other students at these institutions have such rights?  If another school is prepared to honor the scholarship opportunity, why penalize the student one full year of his or her life?

Certainly, one could look at the other side of the coin and think, what’s the harm?  The SA still gets to play for four years, and they are receiving a scholarship for all the time they attend school.  Perhaps SAs actually prefer to transfer because it gives them a free fifth year of college, and more time to earn a degree.  I can understand that point, but is that really thinking about the best interest of the student athlete, or is it just enabling a behavioral trend where fewer and fewer college grads are earning degrees in the traditional four-year time frame?  Put another way, if the athletic scholarship only existed while the SA was actually eligible, do we really think SAs would be so inclined to transfer if the sit-out year was on his or her own dime?

Interestingly, an exemption exists for SAs who have completed their undergraduate degrees and have eligibility remaining.  Those SAs who wish to transfer can do so by enrolling in a graduate program in another school and do not have to sit out a year.  Relatedly, the NCAA recently commissioned a working group to consider possible changes in the transfer rules.  However, the focus of the group will not be on eliminating the one-year sit-out requirement, but rather on whether immediately eligible graduate transfers should have to adhere to same restrictions as undergraduate transfers!  Again, the underlying rationale of the rule is to avoid poaching; how many coaches are really eyeing one-year eligible grad-students from other programs.  And if they are, isn’t it (or shouldn’t it be) ultimately the student’s choice where they want to study?

To avoid running the risk of being deemed overly SA friendly, please know that I am not a proponent of paying or benefitting any SA above and beyond the very generous scholarship the SA already receives.  The new NCAA proposals allowing schools in the “power” conferences to make internal decisions about providing additional benefits will, in my opinion, inevitably lead to a split between such schools and the rest of the NCAA, as such a two-tiered system appears truly untenable long-term.  Such rules erode the concept of students who happen to be athletes and turn them into paid athletes who are permitted to attend classes.  That being said, all such SAs should have the freedom to choose where they wish to study (pending acceptance into such institution), and neither the NCAA nor the individual schools should be permitted to restrict such choices, or require them to wait a year before becoming eligible to play, especially where there appears to no longer be a logical reason to do so.

Post by Afi Ahmadi, Esq.
UVM Catamount Sports Enthusiast