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Free transfer movement could save the NCAA

The NCAA’s archaic rules surrounding player eligibility need to come to an end. It’s the only way to allow truly free amateurism.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 29 Central Michigan at Michigan State Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s a tale as old as time.

A school over-promises or over-recruits at a position, or a player might find themselves in an odd fit schematically thanks to a coaching change. The player transfers, free to go anywhere they like. Or, so it would seem.

Prior to last year, schools could block a potential transfer from speaking with certain institutions, with no reason given. Even with changes to that problem, there are still many barriers. As an undergrad, a player has to sit out a year if they choose to go to an institution of an equal playing level (i.e. FBS to FBS.) Players can transfer to a lower level with no penalty, but once they transfer, they either have to stay or transfer to a junior college to get recruited again. If they’re a potential grad transfer, the player not only has to choose a college, but a different major as well, so as not to run afoul of NCAA amateurism rules.

All of that is before you consider the hardship or medical waiver, which all feels extremely arbitrary and unbalanced in favor of elite prospects. Even then, there’s the strange language surrounding the Hugh Freeze Rule -- which was recently touched up -- making it harder for student-athletes to up-and-bolt unless there’s an extraordinary circumstance, which, again, is very vague and tilts in favor of schools in nine out of ten circumstances.

Coaches have been unable to handle the transfer market, both privately and publicly, since the Freeze rule went into effect, and the modified language is an attempt to try and curb that by essentially eliminating the transfer waiver. In the one year where it really came into effect, it established the idea that “schools shop and players shop too,” rather than “schools shop only”, which was a bit of a positive step in that it created a sense of transparency regarding the student-athlete marketplace.

Key to all this is that players no longer have to gain their coach’s permission to explore the transfer market either, which again, is a positive development, but at the cost of having their scholarship stripped if they decide not to go.

This rewording of the Freeze rule once again makes it so that schools can corral players into their systems and discourage their leaving unless the program tells them they don’t want them anymore, which is extremely hard to quantify legally unless the school admits to some sort of fault, which schools usually aren’t ready to do.

Looking at this situation, I think of Julian Hicks, the former CMU receiver who is now with Akron. It’s a situation which can be looked at through a variety of lenses. If one assumes Hicks used a hardship waiver to be closer to home, he would be eligible immediately since he lives within 100 miles of the new institution, a rule which was used to deny Illinois’ Luke Ford’s attempt to transfer immediately. Assuming Jim McElwain and his coaching staff dismissed Hicks because he was “encouraged to do so”, he might also be immediately eligible under the new language.

However, his eligibility is up in the air because he was a redshirt freshman at the time he entered the portal, meaning that he is not eligible to play immediately unless he sits a year, as he is 1) not an incoming freshman and 2) his transfer is not the immediate result of a coaching change. His situation will ultimately come down to if he applied for a waiver or not, and that even if he did, his fate will be left up to someone’s disposition on a particular day.

There’s only one way to stop these arbitrary decisions and to simplify the transfer process: kill it. That is to say: lift all transfer rules and use the Ivy League model of no graduate transfers.

If the NCAA really cares about the academic and extra-curricular opportunities it affords to student-athletes, it has to allow for freedom of transfer. It does not stand to reason that a regular student can come and go as they please, but student-athletes have to be tethered to what is essentially a contract in order to pursue an education, especially when they aren’t paid and don’t have the ability to leave without penalty.

What we get wrong in this debate and conversation quite often is that we look at it from a purely football perspective. Of course elite athletes who will surely play at the professional level and attract palace intrigue will look for places with the most opportunity where they can get it and take advantage of the system. The NCAA has more than proved it’s willing to turn a blind eye to its written rules in certain cases, most notably the transfer of Tate Martell.

Where we fail to consider the effect of transfer rules are at a macro level, especially for those prospects who likely won’t end up making sports a career and are looking for other opportunities, whether academically, on the field, or both.

The transfer system really hurts those players especially hard. Players often have to wait for writing on the wall (or a less subtle “we’ll give you a recommendation if you need it”) before they can transfer safely, and if they want to leave without such protections, they only have two options: give up a year of eligibility now, or wait until they’re a graduate and hope they have a year remaining.

It’s inherently unfair, and anti-thetical to the capitalist, free-moving nature of our society.

A normal job market operates where if someone is presented a better opportunity, they’re able to take it without repercussions. In college athletics’ topsy-turvy worldview, the player is expected to have undying loyalty to a program or staff which doesn’t necessarily have that same standard of expectation, and more often than not, acts on monarchal whims. The player faces severe retribution for just expressing interest in transferring, while coaches come and go as they please.

If a player decides to change their major and finds a school with an open roster spot that has better resources for that major, they should be able to go there, with no restrictions. Like any other student would be able to.

If a player wants to be closer to home, done. No hand-wringing on if the NCAA decides your case is healthy enough to be considered.

If a school a player wasn’t previously eligible for due to academics smartens up and can now go to the school of their dreams, go for it. Their old school will surely find a replacement in the next recruiting cycle anyway.

If a player wants to stay, stay.

Players can have non-football reasons or motivations for wanting a change of scenery. Looking at this situation purely from the lens of sporting competition does a disservice to the players as a whole. Players are adults, and should be able to make adult decisions.

Loosening the restrictions on transfer eligibility could potentially solve a number of different problems, including the notion of paying players (make the player an independent contractor), the spectre of bag men (who would lose their power because their pitch suddenly loses its focus), and overloading recruiting classes.

Adopting the Ivy League model is perhaps the most important part of this idea. Grad transfers are what got the NCAA into this mess in the first place, as it was the most exploitable loophole in the amateurism process. The grad transfer market, which was already a free-agent marketplace as it was, was turbocharged with the adoption of the Freeze rule. The deletion of the graduate transfer puts everybody on the same clock and makes recruiting cycles easier to process.

The NCAA, as well as the system it fosters, suffers from its own excesses.

The transition of college sports from regional intrigue to national sporting power through the 1980’s and 90’s bloated what may have originally started as an amateur dream and turned it into a business.

It can still correct the mistakes it made, and keep its amateurism intact, if it simply allows for players to treat it like a business too. But that’s asking for the NCAA and those who benefit from it to admit to their own mistakes and admit they wield an ungodly amount of power, and as we know, college sports does not have the best track record in doing the right thing.