By Kevin Sweeney
Even before a global pandemic threw the college sports world into disarray, it was already clear that change was on the way.
Under threat of legal consequences, the NCAA has had to change its stance on name, image, and likeness (NIL) protections for student-athletes. Meanwhile, the mandatory sit-out rule for transfers has been on the chopping block for several years, with reports now of a May vote on whether to allow one-time immediate eligibility for all transfers. Both potential rule changes have the chance to make a significant impact on the college sports landscape. The ability for businesses and boosters to sign sponsorship and other endorsement agreements with players, combined with relaxed restrictions on transfers, has the change to fundamentally change recruiting. The common refrain among coaches compares a college basketball world with no transfer impediment to AAU basketball: as soon as a player no longer is getting the playing time he thinks he deserves, he hops on the next train out of town to somewhere that will. Add money to the mix? Watch out.
We can debate the merits of getting rid of the sit-out rule all we want. As much as I dislike the anonymous quotes from coaches bashing the idea of a more player-friendly process, I also think it’s reasonable to suggest that it won’t make college basketball better. Is less roster continuity, more poaching, and no real ‘punishment’ for bad talent evaluating good for the sport? I don’t think so. That said, does forcing kids to sit out, only to then create a glut of waiver requests decided seemingly with no rhyme or reason, actually productive? No. And given college sports decisions should be centered around the student-athletes, allowing them more rights and mobility seems like the fair thing to do.
No matter how many quotes from coaches come out against the one-time transfer exemption, I find it hard to believe that in the next few years this rule won’t eventually go into effect. Whether it passes this year or not (indications are that it probably will), the tide has turned and general public sentiment is that players should be allowed to play right away. That said, it’s imperative that we do this right. And doing this right means removing the uncertainty that surrounds this spring’s transfer portal and ensure that any potential rule changes with regards to transfers aren’t put into effect until the 2021-22 season.
There are over 800 players in the transfer portal. Of course, many of these players won’t stay at the D1 level, and a fair number are graduate transfers that will be eligible immediately regardless of any rule change. Still, there is a significant contingent of players making decisions that will impact the rest of their lives with a lack of information. Many have been told they’ll be immediately eligible by handlers, parents, or former coaches because of the imminent rule change. Others have been told to expect to sit. Some coaches believe the rule will pass for this year and are recruiting based on that assumption. Many others are taking a wait-and-see approach or believe the rule is a year away. Players aren’t even visiting campus or meeting potential teammates during the process. They are making decisions based on phone calls, FaceTimes, and Zooms with coaches they’ve never met in person, being sold on filling a certain role on a team. Because both sides have incomplete information, we’ve created a disaster of a process. Teams don’t know who they can recruit to fill the holes on their roster. Players hear different things from different people. If this rule passes for 2020-21, how many coaches and players will regret the decisions they made?
This ignores the high school and JUCO players also impacted by this. Many schools are holding scholarships to see what happens with the transfer rule. Players already hurt by a late recruiting period done solely over phone are now being told to hold off until they see what happens in May or June!
So how do we solve this problem? The NCAA should announce today that the transfer rule being voted on is for 2021-22. They should have probably done this on March 1 or earlier, but here we are. This puts everyone on at least a somewhat even playing field. Yes, this leads to one more year of an inconsistent waiver process. Yes, it will look dumb to have players sitting out this season if it is already known that they wouldn’t have to in a year. But I believe that giving everyone some kind of certainty as to what is actually being voted on is the best way to approach this fairly.
Moving the date to next year also prevents a potential second wave of transfers once the rule passes. I don’t personally think that group will be as large as many think, mostly because generally the players who are transferring now are the same group that will want to leave if there’s no sit-out: guys who aren’t getting enough playing time, guys who are ‘too good’ for their current school, and guys who are unhappy. Still, it seems likely that a modest bump will occur. Additionally, will players who committed somewhere based on the idea that they had to sit out want out now that they can go somewhere and play right away?
Any time there’s a significant rule change, there is always an initial period of confusion. Even flawlessly executed plans take time for everyone to be on the same page. But diving head-first into a new era of recruiting without giving either party involved in the process complete information would create needless confusion and a frenzy of activity that simply doesn’t make sense. A one-year pause before the rule becomes law seems like a reasonable way to limit this calamity and help kids and coaches make smart decisions about their future.