The NCAA makes most athletes sit out a season upon transferring. This has been national and conference policy for generations, lasting through decades of arguments about the best way for a sprawling sport to deal with player movement.
It’s a bad rule. Every transfer should get to play immediately, period.
1. Making transfers sit out a year treats athletes differently than other students.
The “residence requirement” to skip a year of competition after transferring exists, according to the NCAA, to help players do better in school:
Requiring student-athletes to sit out of competition for a year after transferring encourages them to make decisions motivated by academics as well as athletics. Most student-athletes who are not eligible to compete immediately benefit from a year to adjust to their new school and focus on their classes.
It’s always been bizarre. Even if the NCAA were qualified to know exactly which players needed to sit out for academics’ sake, why should it be the NCAA’s business?
No other extracurricular typically requires a student to sit out upon transferring. The closest analog is that first-semester freshmen in the general student body are sometimes not allowed to rush fraternities and sororities.
Plus, few other students are restricted from earning money on campus in the same way as varsity athletes — who are so flooded with time commitments they usually can’t get part-time jobs.
2. It also treats athletes differently than coaches and administrators, who also happen to be the ones making all the money.
Coaches don’t have to sit out when they go to a new school, as they often do every year or three. To the extent anyone thinks requiring players to sit out is about accountability, note that the coach’s new school pays his ensuing buyout 99 times out of 100.
This point is sometimes hand-waved away with a line about how players are students while coaches are doing this as a job. Tell that to players who spend 50 hours a week on football.
3. Because the NCAA doesn’t really want every transfer to sit out, it’s devised a system that can be almost impossible to make sense of.
The short version is this:
The longer version is that if players meet some arbitrary and/or rare criteria, they don’t need to sit out a season.
They have a path to immediate eligibility if they’re on a team facing postseason bans for the rest of their career, have served in the military, are dropping to a lower level of football, or haven’t played for two years. Or if their school discontinued their sport.
Players could also navigate the labyrinth if they’re transferring to play a sport other than DI football, baseball, basketball, or ice hockey, are in good academic standing, and are lucky enough not to have their old school try to block them.
Do none of those apply? No worries. A player can play Pin The Tail On The Waiver and get eligible right away if an NCAA committee approves anyway.
It’s never been clear what makes for a successful waiver application. The NCAA doesn’t release details of player appeals, citing student privacy rules. We know from a bunch of cases that it helps a lot if the school the player’s leaving has to sign off on immediate eligibility. But that can be a problem, because players often build their waiver cases around a claim that their previous schools somehow wronged them.
For much of 2018 and 2019, the NCAA was supposedly being more charitable with waivers when the player could demonstrate they left their school due to “documented mitigating circumstances that are outside the student-athlete’s control and directly impact the health, safety and well-being of the student-athlete.”
During that time, it granted waivers for high-profile QBs at Michigan, Ohio State, and Miami who’d been beaten out on the depth chart at other schools, but it denied them to transfers at Illinois and Virginia Tech who wanted to be closer to sick family. The Virginia Tech player’s dad said the NCAA was skeptical of whether the player’s mom was sick enough to warrant an application, because she’d gone back to work (to deal with medical debt).
In 2019, the NCAA tightened the criteria by adding the words “extenuating” and “extraordinary” to describe the kind of circumstance that would get a player a waiver. The NCAA also said that if a player transferred because their last school’s coach effectively ran them off, they’d need their last school to acknowledge that in writing — something schools are obviously incentivized not to do, because it looks terrible.
Was that all really confusing? That’s my point.
4. Nothing catastrophic will happen to college sports if players are allowed to move with the same freedom as coaches.
Football coaches often warn (and often just whine) that letting players transfer without penalty will put their sport on a slippery slope toward free agency. Again, we already have that for coaches.
But putting double standards aside, there’s no evidence players will suddenly leave their schools en masse if they’re allowed to do so without sitting out. Historically, non-athletes have transferred much more than athletes despite having no requirement to sit out from anything, and the percentage of FBS players transferring to FBS schools has barely moved over time.
We can’t know exactly how much free transfers would affect the numbers, because the NCAA hasn’t tried it. The statistical impact of the Transfer Portal, unveiled in late 2018, also isn’t fully known yet. But the burden of proof that any of it will lead to a Wild West of mass transfers from every program (the horror!) is on the people making the claim.
Given that schools now offer mostly four-year scholarships to incoming players, few football teams are likely to have the space to accept more than five or so transfers in a given year. That’s unless they scale back their recruiting of high schoolers, which is a horrible idea.
Even if this Transfer Doomsday did happen, the world would probably keep spinning.
The best time for the NCAA to drop restrictive transfer rules was years ago, before generations of players had to deal with them.
The second best time is now.