Love and Transfers
Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” a classic film released in 1964, was a satirical black
comedy about Cold War tension and the specter of nuclear holocaust. It’s subtitle: “How I
Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”
Those 10 words should be adopted/adapted to counter the NCAA’s recent decision to
change its policy for student-athletes who transfer. Instead of having to sit out a year
(the staid, official NCAA term: “year in residence”), they now have a one-time
opportunity to transfer and be immediately eligible at their new school. (Cue Dr. Peter
Vinkman: “Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!”)
This rule change is either the “beginning of the end” for sports like college basketball or
the “wild, wild west” in terms of free agency (gasp) and fluctuating rosters. It’s not the
former and if, it’s the latter, deal with it. The rule’s impact won’t be known for years and
now it’s all knee-jerk reactions, pearl clutching and hand wringing.
Proposed motto: “How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Freedom for
The new transfer rule and the impending legislation regarding name/image/likeness
profits will be massive changes for college sports. Those changes are overdue. The
NCAA’s perverse term “student-athlete” is a label used to emphasize the academic and
amateur aspects of the College Sports Industrial Complex. The appropriate term is
“indentured-athlete” because student-athletes are deprived the same rights and
freedoms as student non-athletes.
Some of the overseers, though, still can’t see that the workers should be shackled.
"It's awful ...," Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said on a recent Zoom call with reporters. "I
talked to a friend of mine yesterday and he lost his three best players and he just signed
five guys out of the (transfer) portal. He said to me 'It's like putting an AAU team
together.'… Basically, we have free agency so free agency is free agency. Guys go
wherever they want."
And that’s a problem for coaches who… go wherever they want?
There is little doubt that before the first block/charge call is incorrectly whistled next
season there will be unprecedented player movement and roster chaos. The new rule
combines with a one-year exception, necessitated by the pandemic, allowing every
athlete the option for a do-over season in 2021-22. Those who stay, those who go and
those who arrive will create a massive game of musical roster spots.
“I don’t think it’s good for college basketball, but it’s good for the student-athletes, and
that’s what we’re all here for,” Villanova coach Jay Wright told the New York Post about
the new NCAA transfer rule. “We’ll all adjust. It’s going to make it a little messier.”
There are 76 schools in the Power Six college basketball conferences (ACC, SEC, Big
Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Big East) and all but three haven’t had at least one player
enter his name in the transfer portal. As of May, about 1,500 players had entered the
portal. Last year, about 1,100 players “portaled.” It is estimated that 25% of players on
rosters of the 350 Division I schools will enter the portal. Those who choose that route
can return to their original school – if there’s still a roster spot.
“It does feel like there is total chaos right now within college basketball,” Connecticut
coach Dan Hurley told The Hartford Courant. “With the rule, on top of the COVID extra
year of eligibility, it’s kind of like the perfect storm of chaos. In a different time, success
in college basketball was about program building and player and personal development
and continuity. Now, it feels a lot more like free agency or programs that are just putting
together a one-year team.”
Attorney Tom Mars has spent the last few years representing college athletes in their
battles over NCAA eligibility/transfer issues.
"Everyone knows there was never any legitimate rationale for the rule other than a
concern about roster management," he told CBSSports.com. "As much as some head
coaches may complain about that, they'll adjust and figure it out. After all, they wouldn't
be getting paid millions of dollars a year if these jobs were easy."
The “year in residence” rule was an intentional impediment to prevent football and
basketball players from switching schools willy nilly. That theory ignored the idea that
every 18-year-old who could earn a scholarship also had the wisdom and maturity to
make a correct crucial life decision.
It wasn’t that long ago that those who transferred once wore a scarlet “T” – they were
unhappy, lazy, ne’er-do-wells, not good enough. Transfers are now accepted and
welcomed by coaches who want to, you know, win. The Final Four teams had eight
starters who were transfers.
Will there be unintended consequences/problems involving the new transfer rule? Of
course. Here are just a few:
The transfer portal is non-public and available only to players and coaches. The
NCAA announced a draconian Big Brother proposal to monitor IP addresses to
prevent coaches from sharing their portal passwords with those damn dirty,
pesky journalists who Tweet about who has entered the portal.
“Tampering” – directly wooing players on scholarship at other schools – is illegal.
Coaches have mastered the back door play by using intermediaries to contact
players to gauge their interest in transferring. Venerable ESPN analyst Dick
Vitale Tweeted that several coaches have claimed there is “widespread
tampering” occurring. We can expect another three to five pages of lawyer-ese
rules will be added to the already bloated NCAA Manual.
Will the programs in the six power conferences raid lower-level schools for their
best players? Of course. But there will players seeking more playing time who
are at the big-time Division I schools who will transfer “down” to grow their
The “borderline” high school recruit might suffer. The high-level players will sign a
scholarship for their (as of now) one year in college. But most coaches will
choose to sign a “known” college player in the transfer portal instead of an
unproven high school player who might need a year or two of development.
The Titanic didn’t have enough lifeboats. Players in the transfer portal are likely
to collide with the iceberg of no available scholarships. Coaches will point to
those who are left out, but the freedom to decide to transfer carries the same risk
as choosing your original school. Life’s tough. (And those coaches who ask “what
about the kids” rarely hesitated to block waiver requests when those “kids”
wanted to transfer in the old system.)
The NCAA caved on the one-time transfer rule for the same reason it will cave on
NIL legislation – it can’t win those cases in court. And “one-time” transfers are
likely to become “multi-time” transfers. Hardship waivers will still be granted, and
graduate transfers will still exist. If the NCAA tries to curb the transfer trend by
scuttling those current rules, it will face legal challenges it probably won’t win.
Before the turn of the century, you could find plenty of college football administrators
who claimed a post-season playoff was a doomsday plan. One thing – as things tend to
do – led to another. The Bowl Championship Series evolved into the current four-team
College Football Playoff and that will eventually expand beyond four teams. The post-
season has not ruined the sport or diluted interest in the regular season.
Nearly 35 years ago when the NCAA implemented the 3-point shot, there were Old
School coaches who caterwauled about a gimmick that would cheapen, if not destroy,
the integrity of the sport. Well, we’re still waiting for that.
"There was nothing wrong with the old rule, but everybody was in a big hurry to change
it and this is what we have," Iowa’s McCaffery said. "Rules change, laws change, we
adjust. It's going to be a different look for pretty much everybody."
Yes. Even the “student-athletes.”