Rob Oller | Relaxing NCAA transfer rules could be game changer

Rob Oller
Ohio State’s Gene Smith is among the Big Ten athletic directors who favor allowing athletes to transfer and be eligible immediately. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

Fasten your seatbelts, college football and basketball fans, because the Facebooking of your sports may be right around the corner.

In 2004, a Harvard student named Mark Zuckerberg helped develop a social networking site that seemed like an inspired idea. And it was, on the surface. Simmering below, however, lurked the law of unintended consequences — isolation, polarization of society and ethically questionable practices — that eventually bubbled into online frustration.

Facebook’s evolution — or entropy, if you prefer — is instructive when considering what could be in store for the most popular college sports if a Big Ten transfer rule proposal becomes NCAA law.

The proposal, introduced last year but tabled by the NCAA until at least 2021, would allow athletes in football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and men’s hockey to transfer once — but only once — without sitting out a year. Currently, only athletes in nonrevenue (Olympic) sports can transfer and gain immediate eligibility. The Big Ten, citing issues of fairness, wants athletes in revenue-generating sports to have the same opportunities.

“I’m on the side of letting the athletes transfer and be immediately eligible anywhere, and many of the (Big Ten) ADs were of the same opinion,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told The Dispatch.

Those athletic directors almost certainly would have felt differently a decade ago, when they viewed the rule prohibiting immediate eligibility as a transfer deterrent. But as the player empowerment movement gains traction, college administrators prefer to control their future rather than have the courts determine their fate.

Granting immediate transfers is a positive and progressive approach to player rights, but it also would institute a form of free agency that would dramatically change the look of college sports. Like Facebook, mischief would manifest behind the curtain.

“The concern with those transferring out is, ‘Are they being poached?’ ” Smith said Monday, explaining he is worried less about Power Five schools poaching smaller programs of their developing talent than of Power Fives increasingly robbing other Power Fives, which he pointed out already takes place.

“Poaching already happens,” he said.

No one should be shocked that coaches “recruit” players from other programs by using backdoor methods that bypass direct communication with the athlete, including agents and former high school and AAU coaches.

Still, it is hard to sympathize with any coach who whines about losing a player. After all, they don’t complain when a player transfers in.

“When you’re blessed to be on the receiving end, that concern seems to disappear,” Smith said.

Plus, coaches get to “transfer” to better jobs without sitting out a year, their only punishment a buyout that in some cases boosters help pay for anyway.

North Carolina football coach Mack Brown warned that immediate transfer eligibility would lead to roster chaos.

“One of the toughest things now for a head football coach in college is roster management,” Brown said, explaining that no-questions-asked transfers would worsen things. “Let’s say you lose your quarterback. You could have a whole senior class transfer to a place where they’re going to win. We don’t want to get to the wild, wild West.”

Brown insisted he advocates for player rights, “but I’m also for some restraints against young people and families making emotional decisions too quickly that end up not being best for them long term.”

Clearly, guardrails would need to be built into any NCAA transfer legislation. Maybe limit the number of transfers a school can accept each year and restrict transfer exits to the first two years of school so that programs are not hit both by early departures to the NFL and transfers.

Whatever plan takes shape, athletes should be able to come and go with fewer restrictions. But beware the fallout. Increased player freedom in the form of looser transfer rules means fewer fans will press the “like” button on college sports.


Listen to the BuckeyeXtra Football podcast: