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NCAA tinkers with transfer policy, setting up some disastrous unintended consequences

This one wasn’t thought out too thoroughly

LSU v Alabama Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It’s been a busy two weeks for the NCAA.

When the member-managed umbrella organization isn’t allowing baseball to be screwed over, it has been tinkering with the rash transfer policies that Emmert and Co. installed last season — ones which rapidly turning football into a development league with consequence-free transfers now given an institutional blessing.

Ignoring that de facto free agency is fast-approaching, this week the body took to its smoke-filled room to try and work around the margins of the existing transfer scheme. There were some long-standing gaps that needed to be filled for sure, and one particularly draconian provision that needed to be eliminated. But, taken together, the NCAA seems to have approached the issue with its Bag of Solutions in search of a problem to cure.

Some of the transfer changes handed down this week have been good, no doubt. The no-brainer here is the “Baker Mayfield” rule:

This approval from the NCAA allows walk-ons to transfer and play immediately for another school without a waiver, a sharp contrast to the saga the Heisman winner went through when he moved from Texas Tech to Oklahoma a few years ago.

If the foundation of the relationship between player-school is the scholarship, then it made little sense to penalize someone outside of the relationship; someone paying for their own education to merely seek the chance to be a party to a later contract. Unequivocally, the NCAA made the right call here.

The NCAA also shot down one of the dumbest proposals you’ll ever see: a provision that would penalize programs accepting a grad transfer. For each grad transfer, the player’s scholarship would be assessed against a program for two consecutive years. This one made little analytical sense from the jump. The underlying fact of a graduate transfer is that the player has graduated from his/her original institution. They have completed their degree requirements and all obligations to the university have been discharged. Where that player wishes to then continue pursuing higher ed should be of little concern to the original school. Likewise, it makes no sense to penalize universities here for athletic participation. If a player has one year of eligibility remaining, and the player chooses to exhaust that elsewhere upon graduation, that should also be of little concern to the original school. All it would have done is foreclose options for many simply because the transferee school could not make the scholarship count work.

This is where it is salient to remind you that these people are in higher education and the vast majority possess advanced degrees.

But just as the NCAA gives with one hand, it takes with another.

In what is becoming vogue for the NCAA, the committee imposed another hasty half-measure with little regard for long-term consequences. On paper, it seems good that the NCAA adopted the “Hugh Freeze Rule.” A player may now transfer without penalty if his/her head coach departs before the season begins — they shop, we shop. Seems fair right?

However, that’s the extent of the rule; and it both goes too far one way, and not far enough in the other.

How it shorts players: If the NCAA is serious about imposing some perceived equity, then the policy probably should have extended to coordinators and position coaches. At the major college level, these are the personnel that players interact with, that give them daily instruction, that recruit them, and that call the schemes responsible for securing those very player commitments to begin with.

Conversely, there is a doozie of an overlooked problem just waiting to explode in someone’s face. What is not being discussed here is the role that such a policy will have on coaching turnover and the unspoken usurpation of university powers. Administrators must now think twice before giving the quick hook to a popular-but-underachieving or needs-to-be-fired coach. With penalty-free transfers now on the table, an AD can see a program easily crippled a flood of transfers. Since the responsibility of an athletic director is to maximize revenue — and that means fielding a successful program — they are now placed in a very tenuous spot: fire a coach players like or that is lax or that place guys in the pros, or let the inmates run the asylum?

And, it’s not as though this is a hypothetical matter either. Think about the effect what a policy would have meant in the Baylor case. Does Urban Meyer get kicked upstairs or does OSU live with the black eye to its reputation as long as the team wins? Or, for that matter, take the initiating case responsible for the rule change — Hugh Freeze. Does Ole Miss keep an ethical and PR disaster (but who put stars in the NFL and was well-loved by the team) if the cost of making the right decision is hamstringing the program for years to come? Think that will fly in the hypercompetitive college landscape with so much damn money at play? The Ohio States of the world may be able to live with a one- or two-year setback to do what is required. But, how many are going settle for a multi-year rebuild every time a change is made. Because this doesn’t even speak to the effect that widespread transfers would have on yearly scholarship limits. Sure, you can have 85 players on the roster, but (to oversimplify) you can only sign 25 a season.

The NCAA has in effect given 18-22 year-olds a pocket veto over what administrators can do for the long-term health of a program. Did they really intend to permit players to override professional judgment of their very member institution administrations? One would hope not...but given some of the policies the NCAA has passed down the past few years, you can’t be too certain.

I suspect we’ve not seen or heard the last modification to this change — it will only take one full-on transfer exodus-cum-fiasco to react. Like the worst sort of criminal laws, it is both an underinclusive and overbroad policy. As with so many other NCAA woes, it is borne of a desire for a lightning-quick PR victory while offending as few stakeholders as possible. And, just like the initial transfer rules promulgated last season, we again see the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction.

And yet they’ve still not clarified the provisions of transfer working group that turned several sports into a laissez faire paradise for the easily frustrated, the uncoachable, the lazy, and those just not good enough to win a starting job.

Alabama v Mississippi
WTF indeed
Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images

Ed. Note: This is the first of two parts on the NCAA rules changes. Tomorrow we’ll analyze how overtime has been screwed with and the new-new-new-targeting rules.


There’s no way the NCAA actually thought the Hugh Freeze Rule all the way through, right?

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