The NCAA is in the process of reforming its rules for athletes who transfer—and the mere suggestion of changes that could make it easier for football and basketball players to leave one school and play immediately for another was enough to stir things up.
"How can you plan a roster or a team when every player is a free agent at the end of the season?" Alabama football coach Nick Saban said last week.
There is much work to be done and any drastic changes to transfer rules across all NCAA sports are likely a few years away at least. But change is coming, and guiding principals have already been established by the university presidents that make up the NCAA board of directors.
One thing is clear: New transfer rules will be rooted in academics, according to a statement released last week by the Division I Council group working on the topic.
Students with better grades could face fewer restrictions if they want to transfer, and schools may end up with less control over where athletes go.
Athletes who have graduated could still transfer with immediate eligibility, but the so-called free agent market could be chilled by other steps, such as a different way of counting grad transfers toward a team's academic performance.
"We put a survey out about a week ago which really was to gain some feedback from every area of the membership that could help us understand the different perspectives," said South Dakota State athletic director Justin Sell, who is heading the council's transfer working group. "Are we headed down the right path? Are these some things that can really enhance the student's experience? And hopefully at the end of the day create positive stories of graduation when a kid transfers."
Transfer rules have been a nagging issue for the NCAA for years. There are 16 pages of Division I transfer rules in the NCAA manual. Rules vary in lower divisions and even within D-I there are differences from sport to sport. Notably, in most sports—but not in football, men's and women's basketball, baseball or hockey—athletes can use a one-time exemption that allows them to transfer from one school to another without having to sit out a season the way they do in the revenue sports. Conferences also have their own restrictions. Waivers overriding various restrictions are often granted to athletes.
The current rules give coaches the ability to prevent an athlete from receiving an athletic scholarship from another school, essentially blocking a move to a desired school or preventing a transfer altogether. Conflicts between amateur athletes and millionaire coaches about transfers are almost always a loss for the NCAA in the court of public opinion. Inconsistency is the norm.
Research shows athletes who transfer are less likely to graduate and more likely to become ineligible, and men's basketball transfers have reached epidemic levels in the eyes of many coaches. The NCAA said 90 percent of those players indicate they leave for athletics reasons.
Hence the emphasis on academics for Sell and his group of administrators, coaches and members of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
The working group is considering no longer requiring athletes to ask their current schools for permission to contact other schools about transferring. Instead, athletes would notify schools of their intention to transfer, potentially eliminating a coach's ability to stand in the way.
The group has also discussed creating uniformity in all sports. Ideas there include eliminating those one-time exemptions for non-revenue sports, perhaps making all athletes sit out a year after transferring or creating academic benchmarks that could allow athletes to transfer and be immediately eligible.
"As you look at the transfers world, where everyone starts to panic is the ability to play right away," Sell said. "But we're really looking at it from an academic perspective."
Coaches fear that the combination of immediate eligibility and an inability to block transfers could increase poaching, forcing staffs to recruit their own players just to stick around. Sell said his group hopes to propose regulations and penalties as early as next year that would address unethical recruiting and tampering.
There is already back-channel recruiting of transfers through third parties that is nearly impossible to stop, according to John Infante, a former compliance director at Colorado State and Loyola Marymount.
"I think coaches may be almost underestimating how much of this is going on and how much of their job has become, yes, you need to recruit your current athletes by showing them the same level of interest and making sure you treat them consistently," Infante said.
Brady Bramlett, a former University of Mississippi baseball player and chairman of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, said changing from permission to notification would bring much-needed transparency to the transfer process.
"Once the student-athlete has reached that point where they're in the coaches office saying, 'Hey, I'm transferring because of X, Y and Z,' then why create more blockades for that student-athlete if they are already at that point?" Bramlett said.
Still, Bramlett said the SAAC supports restricting athletes from transferring within a conference and added there is no interest in creating a "free-agency model, where any student-athlete can go anywhere they want anytime."
As for graduate transfers, there is concern that a rule originally meant to give athletes more options when pursuing graduate degrees has created, as Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has called them, "hired guns" in college sports.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick disagreed.
"If you've got your degree I want to give you as much freedom as you possibly can." Swarbrick said. "I think people perceive an abuse in it that frankly I don't."
Sell said his group is looking at changing rules regarding grad transfers so they are counted toward a team's Academic Progress Rating more similarly to the way undergraduates are counted. That would mean docking APR points if postgraduate athletes are not progressing toward a degree. An even stricter measure would require a school to commit the scholarship it gives to a grad transfer for the length of the program the athlete enters — even if the athlete leaves earlier.
Infante said the effectiveness of any new legislation regarding transfers will be in the details. The general philosophy, he said, is clear.
"If this really looks like an athlete who is going to go on to the next school and probably get a degree there, then we want to encourage those transfers," he said. "The ones that look like that by transferring the athlete is going to become less likely to graduate, we're going to still have restrictions in place or add new restrictions to frustrate those transfers or cool the market."