Advocating Change of NCAA Transfer Rules

Last week in my sports law class at Quinnipiac Law School, we discussed the state of collegiate coaching contracts.  I began the class by sharing one of my favorite quotes on the topic.  In 2009, Jim Harbaugh, then coach of Stanford University, discussed his new contract extension with the university.  When asked if the contract extension ensured that Harbaugh would return the following season, he responded as follows:

“Nobody has promised that…I’m not going to write anything in blood on a stone tablet.” 

With that short statement, Coach Harbaugh accurately summarized the college coaching business.  Coaches are virtual free agents each season and can move between schools freely with little restriction beyond their buyout clause.  But if the freedom of choice is acceptable for coaches, why isn’t it so for student-athletes?

Warren K. Zola has posted an excellent article on the Huffington Post entitled “I’m Begging you for Mercy” concerning NCAA transfer rules and the cases of Todd O’Brien, Brock Berglund and Danny O’Brien. 

Zola writes as follows:

“To summarize: The NCAA rules, written by schools claiming to protect the best interests of student-athletes, allow coaches to move about at will but, student-athletes need permission to do so.”

Zola offers a reasonable solution to the problem by allowing student-athletes to transfer if their coach leaves the school and by taking the permission and release process away from coaches and athletic directors. 

I would go one step further and allow student-athletes to transfer freely without permission from the school, especially when the student-athlete has already earned a degree from the original school, as in the Todd O’Brien and Danny O’Brien matters.  These student-athletes have fulfilled their end of the scholarship bargain and should be free to pursue other opportunities.  For undergraduates in baseball, basketball, football, and men’s ice hockey, the rule requiring student-athletes to spend a “year in residence” (sit out) after a transfer before being eligible is sufficient to prevent student-athletes from transferring without careful consideration.  Moreover, a student-athlete has a short window to compete - typically 5 years to play 4 seasons.  Why allow coaches and administrators, whose careers are unlimited in length, make decisions that affect the brief career of student-athletes, especially when those are driven by disputes (see Randy Edsall and Vanderbilt) that have nothing to do with the student-athlete?

Under Mark Emmert, the NCAA has shown a willingness to make changes to improve the experience of student-athletes.  In light of recent events, here’s hoping that the transfer situation will also be addressed in short order.  As Zola writes:

“If we care about free choice in our society, protect it for the coaches and athletic administrators, why not the student-athletes?”

For more on NCAA transfer rules, see these Connecticut Sports Law articles:

NCAA Denies Todd O’Brien’s Appeal; Reform Necessary

Kansas Accepts Transfer QBs but Refuses to Release Berglund

SMU’s June Jones Treats Transfers Right

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