The NCAA Transfer Rule: A Year-Long Suspension

Gray Crow – There has yet to be prescribed an adequate solution to one of the most pressing issues facing young student-athletes: the NCAA transfer rule.

One might find it difficult to imagine being a world-class, sought after, high school athlete who is recruited to play your sport at the collegiate level—I certainly can’t. Each signing day, sixteen and seventeen-year-old kids put pen to paper and achieve their life-long dreams of becoming a college athlete. Next, imagine showing up at the university that you signed to play for and the coach calls you into his office and breaks the news that he’s going to take a job at another school because they’re offering him significantly more money—a likely scenario because top college coaches command multi-million dollar salaries. You are crushed: not only did you decide to come play for this school because of the top academic programs and proximity to your hometown, but also because of this coach that’s sitting in front of you and the offensive scheme that he runs. Later that evening, you call your father and break the news to him and he recommends that you consider transferring to another school. This means that you would have to sit out a year, per NCAA rules, because of a decision that you feel was the best to achieve long-term success in your athletic career and possible opportunities to play professionally. This could be an even more stressful decision when the athlete does not have anyone to consult with. Fortunately, there are attorneys who specialize in counseling athletes to assist with these difficult decisions, among others. Ultimately, you decide to stay at the school, score some points for the team before your career is over, and earn your degree on their dime. Because of this decision, and lack of playing time, you fail to achieve a life-long dream of playing in the NFL. Then, you decide to go to law school because you seek to help your former teammates some day—a better choice some may argue.

Imagine now, a slightly different scenario where a student at a university, who is not an athlete, decides to change her major. She seeks a different course of study because her career options would be more promising if she switches to this second major. She decides to set up a meeting with an academic advisor who, to her dismay, breaks the news that the school is ending this course of study in their curriculum. Upon a conversation with her parents, she decides to apply to transfer to another institution. This new school not only offers her the desired academic program she seeks, its overall ranking as a university is higher, which would further increase her chances of obtaining a job in her desired field upon graduation. She ultimately transfers to the new school, gets a great job upon graduation and proceeds to have a successful career. Notice in this situation, the student does not have to take any time off or “sit out” because of a decision she made that was going to positively affect her career outcome.

The consideration is very simple for most athletes at the collegiate level: a school that offers more of an opportunity for playing time means more of an opportunity to demonstrate talent that could help them land “jobs” in their sport. The specific choice of the young woman’s major, in the second scenario above, is not relevant to this consideration. The point is that she is empowered to make an unfettered decision that will put her in a better position to affect her career outcome, compared to student-athletes who do not have this luxury. The very similar decision of transferring, for a student-athlete, carries punitive implications for his or her career—time away from competition. Further, not only is the athlete a student-athlete, but he or she is a student who is making major sacrifices in his or her own life to provide a service for a university—a service that generates masses of revenue from boosters, among other financial gains. The infringement on the rights of student-athletes through this rule could be considered as a more restrictive non-compete agreement, which will not only inhibit their chances for any playing time, but could ultimately put them “out of business” and end their athletic career. Additionally, and as the first scenario illustrates, coaches can leave at any moment for more lucrative contracts, leaving the young men and women behind that they recruited. Should these young athletes decide to stay behind, they are subject to the hiring selection of a new coach by the athletic department—another decision that could negatively affect their career.

Certainly, recent changes to the NCAA rules have made them slightly more athlete-friendly. Previously, the threshold number of competitions that an athlete could compete in and retain a redshirt year was a smaller number. Now, a student-athlete can compete in an increased number of competitions in their first year of enrollment at an institution and maintain a redshirt year. The redshirt year allows the athlete to continue to practice with the team, provided that he or she does not compete for an entire season. This makes the transfer process easier because if an athlete sees more playing time and discovers through this playing time that he is not the right fit for the team, he or she will be able to make a fully informed decision, without losing a year of their eligibility. The redshirt year is available to the athlete until he exhausts his eligibility, which is valuable provided that the athlete has not “burned” it in his first season of competition by playing in too many games. Although a redshirt year technically does entail sitting out a year just like the transfer rule does, the transfer rule negatively effects an athlete’s eligible years and ultimately their career when they do not have a redshirt option to exercise, which results in lost time. Finally, if the NCAA transfer rule were to be lifted, some may argue that this would invite athletes to abuse the system or make a rash decision, however those individuals may not realize that schools can still limit and decide where the athlete is not allowed to transfer to. This typically applies to schools in the same conference. The component of the transfer rule only allowing athletes to transfer once, subject to certain exceptions, plays an important role because if this were not in place, it is more likely that transferring would be abused.

Exceptions are in place, such as the graduate transfer exception. This exception allows a student-athlete who receives their undergraduate degree to transfer to a university and play immediately, provided that they begin studying a graduate school curriculum. The exception is extremely useful to obtain not only athletic opportunities, but also advanced degrees. However, in most cases this only provides the student athlete with one year at an institution and would be an uphill battle for the athlete to advance to the next level of a sport with only one season of film to demonstrate their ability.

Movement of higher profile athletes can cause widespread, national media attention and speculation. This suggests that society should be concerned with this issue. Further buttressed by the fact that millions of viewers tune in to college sports championships each year, this rule is ripe for change by the NCAA and would greatly improve the lives and career outcomes of collegiate athletes in their sports.



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