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NCAA Transfer Restriction Rule Should Be Rewritten

But not done away with entirely.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Every so often, the NCAA's transfer rules become a topic of conversation, and they've been back in the news this month thanks to Georgia's new head coach Kirby Smart.

Long story short: Bulldog running back A.J. Turman decided he wanted to transfer, and Smart told the native Floridian that he wouldn't release him to a number of schools with Florida and Miami (FL) being among them. This in and of itself is not news outside the UGA beat, as Turman hasn't played a snap and such transfer restrictions are commonplace.

However, it is notable outside the UGA beat because it's a complete reversal of policy for Georgia. Mark Richt famously did not believe in transfer restrictions, and, as Bruce Feldman pointed out, AD Greg McGarity used to say that UGA didn't put any restrictions on transfers. One of the few places that didn't restrict athletes' transfers now does.

I've been hoping that through this process, someone would put together a really good defense of transfer restrictions. Smart himself didn't exactly help much when he cited an SEC rule that doesn't exist. Two of his other rationales were that he doesn't want a former UGA player doing negative recruiting against him at another school, and he doesn't want to face a former player. The former makes no sense because a player doesn't need to be at a rival school to spread the bad word about a coach with recruits. The latter doesn't hold water either because That's Why They Pay You the Big Bucks. If Smart's multi-million dollar staff can't overcome the presence of a former player being on a future opponent, they're in big trouble.

I thought I might get a good defense of this practice over the weekend when I saw a piece on Gridiron Now headlined, "In Defense of Kirby Smart". Unfortunately, the argument in it boils down to: this is just like how employment contracts have non-compete clauses, so stop complaining.

The analogy completely fails because scholarships aren't employment contracts, or, in the NCAA's own words, even a binding contract. It's apples and oranges. It also counters the argument of "schools shouldn't impose transfer restrictions" with an argument of, "nothing is stopping them from imposing transfer restrictions just like what happens in other areas". It's a non sequitur. I was still empty handed on a good defense of transfer restrictions.

It would be useful to pull back and define the terms before going further. No school can actually prevent any of its students from transferring to any other school of the student's choosing. If Turman wants to transfer to Florida or Miami, there is nothing Smart or the school can do to prevent that from happening.

What Smart and the school can do is make it unappealing to transfer to other places:

In Division I and II, a student-athlete must request permission to contact other schools about a transfer...

If permission to contact another school is denied... the [other] school may not give the athlete an athletic scholarship for the first year the athlete attends the school.

When Smart says he won't allow Turman (or any other player, since he said he's setting a precedent) to transfer to another SEC school, Georgia Tech, or Richt's Miami, what he's actually saying is that he won't allow his players to contact those schools. Without that permission to contact those schools, a player would have to find some way to pay to attend one of those schools for a year other than with an athletic scholarship.

The arguments against this practice flow easily. To make an actual apples-to-apples comparison, Georgia's engineering department couldn't prevent one of its scholarship students from transferring to Georgia Tech and immediately getting an engineering scholarship from there. Why should athletic scholarships be different? But beyond that, why should anyone under any circumstances be able to prevent a student from accepting financial aid at a university of his or her choice? What is the moral justification behind that practice?

According to the NCAA's "Get the Facts" FAQ on transfers, transfer rules are supposed to help and protect players.

The reason why one school has to get written permission to contact a player from another school is to prevent "continuous recruiting of student-athletes once they are enrolled on a campus". I am whole-heartedly behind that notion. Once an athlete has signed the letter of intent, he or she should not get any more recruiting messaging from other schools without explicitly asking for it.

The NCAA is a little fuzzier on the issue of preventing players who don't get a release from one school from accepting financial aid at another one right away:

Q: Why can’t student-athletes transfer whenever they want?

A: NCAA rules do not prevent student-athletes from transferring. The NCAA has rules for certain aspects of the process, including eligibility for competition and requiring a release from the original school to receive an athletics scholarship during the first academic year at another school...

The NCAA places safeguards on the process to promote rational decision-making. Student-athletes who transfer are less likely to earn a degree than those who remain at their original institution; for that reason, it is important that the decision to transfer is carefully considered.

I am sympathetic to the idea of making college-aged people slow down in their decision making processes. However, the NCAA very easily could be confusing correlation with causation here.

No one transfers apropos of nothing, and whatever the reason for transferring is could easily stand in the way of the athlete getting degree at their original university. If the player wants to transfer for more playing time, it could be that the player is more committed to athletics than academics and therefore is less likely to get a degree at the original school anyway. If they're going to transfer because they got kicked off the team, well, the behavior of someone who gets dismissed from a program doesn't classically line up with the behavior of people who earn degrees. If they're transferring due to a family emergency, family emergencies sometimes sink the academic careers of non-athletes too, and there are waivers to make it easier for athletes to transfer in those circumstances anyway.

And you know else doesn't help the pursuit a degree? Losing a scholarship for a year.

It's true that it can be disruptive to an academic career to transfer, as it takes time to learn a new campus and get coursework lined up and straightened out with a new department, but the NCAA says that's why players have to sit out a year before playing after a transfer:

Q: Why do football and basketball players have to sit out a year after they transfer?

A: The year-in-residence is required to help student-athletes adjust to their new school and ensure that their transfer was motivated by academics as well as athletics.

So after all of this, I still haven't seen a convincing argument as to why schools should be able to prevent athletes from immediately getting a scholarship at another school. Therefore, I still assert that allowing a coach or AD to prevent an athlete from taking financial aid from whatever school the athlete wants to is immoral and illogical, and all coaches and ADs who impose such restrictions are acting immorally too. As long as athletes are still students and not employees, they should get the academic freedom to study whatever they want, wherever they want, and accept at any time financial aid offered to them by the school at which they're enrolled.

Not all transfer restrictions are bad. The communication restrictions prevent continuous recruiting, and that's a good thing. Making athletes sit out a year after transferring is a deterrent to athletes transferring on a whim, and that's at least defensible.

Any restrictions on accepting university financial aid after a transfer are not defensible and need to go. The NCAA should rewrite its transfer rules and get rid of the part that lets one school prevent an athlete from accepting an athletic scholarship from another school for a year.