Rob Oller | Athlete empowerment continues with expected NCAA update to transfer rules
On Christmas Eve 1969, major-league outfielder Curt Flood began wrapping a present for future generations of athletes, a gift that empowered the performer and forever changed the sports landscape by setting the stage for free agency.
In a letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn voicing his disapproval of being traded from St. Louis to Philadelphia without having been able to shop his services to other teams, Flood wrote, “After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States … .”
Free agency was conceived that day, if not born for another six years, when in 1975 Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith won his case against MLB that struck down the reserve clause, allowing players greater control of their career paths.
Forty-six years later, some fans still see free agency as the bastard child of greedy, ungrateful athletes who hook up with high-end owners. Other fans see player movement as the natural offspring of a free-market system that rightly allows athletes to determine their destiny.
Regardless of stance, it is inarguable that Thursday marked another milestone in the ancestral line of player empowerment. The NCAA Division I Council signed off on allowing athletes in football and men’s basketball, as well as women’s basketball, baseball and men’s hockey, to transfer one time before graduating without having to sit out a year of competition.
The new script will provide alignment by giving athletes in those five sports the same transfer benefits as their peers in Olympic non-revenue sports, who for years have been able to change schools and gain immediate eligibility.
Athletes in fall/winter sports would face a May 1 deadline to enter the transfer portal. Spring athletes would have a July 1 deadline.
That the Curt Floodgates are opening to college athletes is no surprise. Player rights issues have trended in favor of athletes over organizations for about a decade, topped by the Ed O’Bannon ruling in 2014 that college athletes need to be compensated for use of their name, image and likeness.
What makes the transfer ruling ironic is that the cultural catalyst for change centers on college coaches, many of whom quietly complain they will be hurt most by the NCAA ruling as roster chaos ensues. These are the same "victims" who jump job to job without penalty of having to sit out a year.
The hypocrisy is so glaring that even those who bang the drum of “Don’t feel sorry for scholarship athletes, they get a free education” cannot in good conscience defend it.
But it’s not just job-hopping coaches who shaped the NCAA’s decision. The governing body also deemed it unfair that athletes in the majority of non-revenue sports could transfer without impacting eligibility, but athletes in the more popular sports — and more profitable, in the case of football and men’s basketball — could not.
The NCAA can be clunky in its administration and clueless in cultural intelligence — the gap in on-site training facilities between the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments being the latest example — but credit the organization for finally bringing equality to its transfer rules.
That said, now comes the bigger challenge. The council’s ruling, which still needs to be rubber stamped by college presidents later this month, signals a significantly change college sports. Or at least the way fans view them.
College and professional sports are fundamentally different because amateur athletics still fairly resemble what pro sports were before Flood wrote his letter.
Perhaps it is overly quaint sentiment to suggest that the allure of college athletics is tied to the lack of free agency; that fans fall in love with their football teams as they become familiar with the names and faces of players who stick around for at least three years.
Allow athletes to transfer with immediate eligibility — nearly 1,400 Division I men’s basketball players were in the transfer portal as of Wednesday — and the fear is college becomes the NFL, NBA or MLB.
Maybe, but collateral damage usually accompanies progress. That doesn’t mean we should slam on the brakes. If a college sprinter — or biology/music/art student — can transfer without penalty, so, too, should a starting point guard. If a coach can bail on his team, why can’t a linebacker leave for potentially greener pastures – without being called selfish and soft?
Change is inevitable. Positive change is not. It may sting for millions of fans, but fair is fair.