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NCAA Considers Allowing Immediate Eligibility for Transfers

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Wisconsin vs Florida Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

According to a report by Jon Rothstein, the NCAA will in coming days discuss immediate eligibility for athletes transferring schools. Currently, athletes must sit out a year when they change schools, unless they have graduated and are transferring to a school with a graduate program not offered at their current school.

The debate should be interesting. There are good arguments on both sides.

Why It’s A Good Idea

Immediate eligibility would give more power to student-athletes. Recently the NCAA has come under fire for making billions off amateur athletics. While I doubt very many schools (outside of SEC football factories) would be in favor of converting the current system into a professional model, the NCAA member schools are sensitive to public perception. Anything that can shift the balance of power towards the players will be perceived as a good thing.

The idea makes the most sense when there’s a coaching change. As much as players talk about the luxurious basketball facilities or the gorgeous campus, anyone will tell you that—for basketball and football anyway—they really commit to a coach, not a school. But a coach is free to up and leave whenever he likes, while his players don’t have that option.

This would also help bad teams get better faster. It’s common for a decimated program to rely on transfers to plug holes in the roster, but those players don’t offer immediate help unless they are senior graduate transfers. And senior graduate transfers are only available for one year. Regular transfers take up one of 13 available scholarships without being able to play. They practice with the team, attend class like any other student, but can’t play solely because of one rule put in place by the NCAA.

Why It’s A Bad Idea

I can think of two reasons this rule change might open up a Pandora’s box in college athletics.

First, when a school hired away another school’s coach, that coach might be allowed to bring along players with him. Really like Joe Basketball at State U? Try to hire his coach, and he could be playing for your school next season. And Joe Basketball’s coach is likely to ask for a higher salary since he can bring Joe Basketball with him. With all of the uncomfortable discussion about how everyone is getting rich of student-athletes except the student-athletes, this would make coaches look even more like they were pimping their players. That’s a bad look.

Second, this is going to really hurt small schools. If a player has a good year in the MAC, why not transfer to an MVC school the next year? Have a good year there, transfer again to the Big East. The biggest programs will be able to suck up the best talent from elsewhere. Hate how Kentucky relies on one-and-done freshmen? You’ll really hate it when they rely on the best senior transfers that have skill and experience.

Conclusion

You could argue that rules could be put in place to negate the downsides listed above. And you’d be right. But the voting members of the NCAA need to carefully think through all of the downsides, including unforeseen or unintentional ones, and come up with rules that maximize the upside and minimize the downside. The transfer system is in need of reform, but the last thing we want is a system where every student-athlete is a free agent every year, angling for the best deal they can find. Recruiting is already dirty enough, and now it only happens once per player. Imagine if a coach had to recruit a player four times to get him to stay four years.

Take your time with this, NCAA. You can do some good, but there are risks.