Thrill of Victory

On geese and ganders: The NCAA and its uneven treatment of student-athletes

I hate inconsistencies. Whether it’s ordering a burger one way and getting it entirely another, or something far more important — for instance, the fact that our country deems an 18-year-old responsible enough to make a decision to serve in the military, but not old enough to drink — they don’t sit well with me. And in surfing the Internet this morning, I ran across one that relates to sports. I present this piece to you — courtesy of The Slate — which discusses the NCAA and its transfer rules.

For as long as I can remember, players have been restricted in their term of transfer. Generally speaking, if a player in a major sport (football, basketball, baseball, hockey) wants to leave, he or she must pay the penalty of sitting out a year. Recently, some exceptions have been created — for instance, if a player has graduated and another school has a graduate major that the player’s school doesn’t have, he may leave without sitting out. If an athlete requests a transfer for an unusual circumstance — for instance, he wishes to be closer to home to be near an ailing parent — that, too, has been deemed okay without applying the penalty.

But if a player is just flat-out unhappy… well, sorry, Charlie, you can leave, but it’ll be two years before you can play again, though you can at least be on scholarship during your off-year. Actually, the latter is not always the case, as (for example) Vanderbilt has demonstrated on each end. Recently, Oklahoma State quarterback Wes Lunt sought Vanderbilt as a possible transfer destination, but coach Mike Gundy restricted Lunt from transferring to about 40 different schools, one of which was VU. Gundy later relaxed those restrictions, but by then, too much water was under the bridge, and Lunt settled on Illinois. Meanwhile, VU hoops coach Kevin Stallings put a similar restriction when Sheldon Jeter wanted to leave Nashville to transfer to Pitt.

Of course, there are sometimes back-stories to these kinds of things. Vanderbilt suspected some tampering on Pitt’s end when it blocked Jeter’s transfer to Pitt, which is probably why, when Jeter appealed to VU, it was denied. I have no idea what Gundy’s motivation may have been.

Either way, there’s a degree of hypocrisy in the way rules are written. A player must seek permission from his own school to explore transfer possibilities, which could open up a whole can of worms should he decide to stay — and if, say, he finds there are no good options, he’d probably want to do that. But don’t you think it might be just a little uncomfortable on the player involved if he decides to return?

Meanwhile, a coach may come and go as he pleases. Yes, it may be protocol for one school to contact the school of another about potentially filling a coaching vacancy, but it’s not a requirement. If the coach and the school want to go stealth during the whole process and then the coach decides to leave — even if he signed a contract with his previous employer the day before — there’s nothing to stop him, except for something rare like this. So unlike the player, the coach has no penalty placed upon him for circumventing the system.

Now, if you tried to remove the transfer restrictions, coaches would cry foul in all sorts of ways. I’ll outline the arguments here and give some simple rebuttals.

“If players can transfer at will, it could be chaos. We could turn over half our roster in one year.” (Hello, Mike Rice… take a look in the mirror and ponder whether you may have some bigger issues.)

“It’ll kill the smaller programs. If I find a sleeper player who becomes a superstar, he’ll leave us for a bigger program.” (And when bigger schools start calling you, won’t you do the same?)

“Building a roster takes years, and you have to plan ahead in recruiting and structure your roster accordingly. It would be hard to recover if, say, all my centers transferred out in one year.” (There are a lot of strategic decisions that go into a player’s picking a particular school, the most important of which may be who’s going to coach them. From a player’s perspective, the shoe is on the other foot here.)

Those rebuttals make it look bad enough, but it’s actually worse. Even a mature coach can get in a bad situation at a school, and when it becomes evident that it’s not the right fit, he of course has the power to leave without penalty. How much harder is it for an 18-year-old to make a bad choice? Plus, when a player leaves, it mostly affects one person — the coach — whereas a coach leaving has an impact on an entire roster.

I’m not claiming to have a perfect solution here. I don’t think that making coaches sit out a year before changing schools is a good idea, and perhaps the penalty of sitting out a year of transferring deters players from making impulse decisions that they might later regret. But I do know that the inconsistencies bother me, and it’s time that the NCAA’s policies stopped most of the power to one side.