The Big Ten quietly proposed legislation last year that would allow players in every sport to transfer once in their careers without sitting out a year in residence at their new institution. If adopted, the legislation would mark one of the biggest competitive changes in the history of college sports.
Football and basketball coaches who have been critical of recent changes in the transfer process would have their worst fears realized — essentially, one-time free agency would be available for all college athletes.
“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel told CBS Sports. “I don’t know who’s going to freak out and who’s not going to freak out. That doesn’t come into my thinking about it.”
The Big Ten’s proposal was largely unknown in NCAA circles. It went unpublished by the NCAA as it wound its way through the legislative cycle in October 2019. On Nov. 1, the NCAA Board of Directors put a moratorium on “transfer-related” proposals for the 2019-20 legislative calendar.
The board said it would gather additional data over the next year, including evaluation of a transfer model similar to the one suggested by the Big Ten. The conference proposed the transfers take place within a five-year eligibility window. The soonest the Big Ten’s legislation could be adopted is now 2021.
The Big Ten’s support of such a proposal indicates a sea change in the transfer debate. The nation’s oldest and richest conference sees the issue as one of fairness.
Athletes in only five sports are required to sit for a season when transferring: men’s basketball, women’s basketball, baseball, hockey and football. In the NCAA’s 20 other sports, athletes are allowed a one-time. The difference in the two transfer policies is getting harder to rationalize.
The NCAA continually says athletics should enhance the overall education experience. The experience for the average student includes the ability to transfer schools at will.
“We have five sports that are not allowed to transfer in this day and age. That is something we need to fix,” Manuel said. “We need to give all young people flexibility to transfer once. If they transfer a second time, there is no waiver.”
Big Ten athletic directors seem united on the subject despite the fact that the change would likely cause upheaval in major revenue-producing sports. One Big Ten AD suggested that coaches simply need to do a better job of identifying players who will stick with their programs.
More than 55 percent of the athletes in football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball — three of the five singled-out sports — are minorities. In men’s basketball alone, that figure is 65 percent.
“It’s not that we believe the rules are racist,” Manuel said. “The rules are disproportionately impacting a group of people that are distinctive by race.”
The rules also affect athletes specifically either in the highest revenue-generating sports or those that have major professional sports leagues waiting for their skills on the other side of their collegiate careers.
Currently, only graduates are allowed to transfer immediately for their remaining year(s) of eligibility. All other transferring underclassmen must sit out for a so-called academic year-in-residence at their new school. That year-in-residence has been in place since 1951. Studies have shown that players who don’t transfer achieve at a higher level academically than those who do.
However, one Big Ten source said it has “kind of given up on the notion you have to have a year in residence to be successful academically.”
The so-called “graduate transfer” era began in 2005 with athletes who had achieved their undergraduate degrees given the ability to transfer without sitting out for their remaining year(s) of eligibility. The increase in graduate transfers has vexed coached concerned with roster management. It has also created an annual market where coaches can improve their teams immediately by getting a game-changing quarterback.
The rules were further liberalized in October 2018 when the transfer portal was created. It allows athletes to make it known across their respective sports that they are planning to transfer without first seeking permission from their coach or the school. Since at least 1964, coaches and schools had been able to “block” athletes for what amounted to be competitive reasons.
The current year-in-residence rules trace their roots back to the late 19th century. Presidents in what was then the emerging Big Ten were concerned about so-called “tramp athletes.” They were basically athletic mercenaries showing up to play football at schools, sometimes without even being enrolled. Presidents back then required players to be on campus for six months, then basically continued the practice of allowing tramp athletes to improve their football fortunes.
Noted lawyer Tom Mars knows the Big Ten legislation could essentially eliminate part of his business. Mars has become the go-to lawyer for transferring underclassmen seeking a waiver of the year-in-residence rule. He was able to win waivers for the likes of Justin Fields (Ohio State) and Shea Patterson (Michigan) to play right away.
“Helping student-athletes pursue their dreams without being unfairly penalized has become a large part of my practice,” Mars told CBS Sports. “… That said, I’d be thrilled if the NCAA Legislative Council put me out of business. Nothing would make me happier than to have them a more fair and sensible rule.”
Mars was hired by the NCAA in July 2019 to serve as an independent external advocate in its investigative Complex Case Unit.
Manuel said a change in transfer rules would streamline the process. About 65 percent of waiver appeals seeking immediate eligibility continue to be granted. Why not, he suggested, allow 100 percent of transfers to be eligible immediately, thus eliminating the need for waivers.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has previously advocated for a one-time immediate transfer rule.
“My belief is that a one-time transfer should be allowed for all student-athletes. I am clearly advocating for rights that college football players have not had,” he wrote on Twitter following the 2019 Big Ten Media Days. “This would be the decision totally in the hands of the student-athlete and family and would protect all from disclosing information and rights afforded under HIPAA and FERPA.”
A new NCAA transfer working group chaired by MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher continues to study the subject.
“Clearly, there is a concern over the waiver process,” Steinbrecher said. “There is a lack of predictability. For an array of reasons, it can’t be transparent — legal and otherwise.”
The legislation was crafted by senior women’s administrators and faculty athletics representatives in addition to the Big Ten ADs. The conference initially submitted two “concepts” to the NCAA in July.
- All athletes can transfer without restriction.
- All transferring athletes in all sports must sit out a year
The conference eventually dropped the second concept before refining its proposal for October 2019.
“We want to force the question,” Manuel said. “Our take in the Big Ten — my take at Michigan — would be to vote for everybody getting a one-time transfer.”