Perhaps no facet of college sports has changed more in recent years than an athlete’s ability to transfer to a new school and the processes and methods by which such a move occurs.
In the space of about four years, the ability of a coach to deny a player a scholarship “release” or block a potential transfer from choosing certain schools has mostly vanished.
A system was created in which athletes wanting to change schools could be added into an online database, called the transfer portal, which coaches can use to search and contact transferring players they want to recruit.
Since 2011, athletes who graduate from their school with a four-year degree but have athletic eligibility remaining have been allowed to seek a new school to finish their college careers and, by meeting a few requirements, become immediately eligible to play at the new school.
The next potential shift in the rules that regulate transfers is on the horizon, possibly as soon as this month.
Typically, an athlete transferring from one four-year college to another as an undergraduate athlete must sit out a year, called an “academic year of residence,” before becoming eligible to play for the new school. This usually results in that player either using a redshirt or losing one of four total seasons of competitive eligibility.
Athletes in five sports can, with help from their new school, apply for what is called a waiver, petitioning the NCAA to allow immediate eligibility at the new school due to the circumstances of their transfer.
On May 20, the NCAA Division I Council, comprised of various athletic directors and conference commissioners — plus two athletes — has been expected to vote on an adjustment to waiver rules that would allow athletes to be immediately eligible if it’s the first time they’ve made a transfer from one four-year school to another (provided all academic eligibility is in order).
Athletes in many college sports already have that ability, but five sports do not. They are men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, men’s ice hockey and football (except for FBS to FCS dropdowns).
In February, an NCAA working group recommended that the council take up the issue in time to go into effect for the 2020-21 academic year.
The hope is that it will bring relief and consistency to the waiver process. The NCAA currently considers thousands of waivers each year as athletes petition for immediate eligibility under an accepted set of circumstances at the previous institution, which includes things like: a coach removing the opportunity to participate, egregious behavior by a teammate or staff member, injury or illness of the athlete or a family member, or financial hardship.
The NCAA often has so many waiver requests to process that athletes and their new teams are caught waiting for a decision even after that team’s next season has begun.
“The current system is unsustainable,” Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, said in February. “This concept provides a uniform approach that is understandable, predictable and objective. Most importantly, it benefits students.
“More than a third of all college students transfer at least once, and the Division I rule prohibiting immediate competition for students who play five sports hasn’t discouraged them from transferring,” Steinbrecher, chair of the working group, said. “This dynamic has strained the waiver process, which was designed to handle extenuating and extraordinary circumstances.”
Common belief was that the first-time transfer circumstance would be added as an option through the waiver process, and that the council would vote in favor of the change and implement it immediately.
The waters muddied on April 30 when the NCAA board of directors, comprised of various school presidents, recommended that the council delay making the change to waiver rules. Between the February recommendation and present day, the new coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wave of uncertainty over college sports.
Randy Rahe, Weber State’s head men’s basketball coach entering his 15th season, provided one example of why an immediate implementation of the waiver exception might be needed: With the NCAA allowing an additional year of eligibility to spring sports athletes due to the pandemic canceling their 2020 seasons, some schools are letting spring sports seniors come back and some aren’t — and how many scholarships are available for spring athletes at each school could vary widely.
“Sports like baseball need it to pass because they’ve got kids who aren’t getting drafted because there is no draft and there is no season. ... Kids want to transfer and make sure they can play somewhere next season,” Rahe told the Standard-Examiner. “So there’s a lot of different factors that make it obvious that most people want it to pass.”
The board’s recommendation to delay the decision seems to have shifted sentiment that the May 20 vote will not produce a change to waiver rules. But the vote is two weeks away and momentum could again build for the council to vote in favor of changing the waiver rules to give first-time transfers immediate eligibility. Such a vote could put the change into effect immediately, or to be implemented at a later date.
If it’s put into effect right away on May 20, the expectation is a new wave of transfers, especially in basketball, will rush into the transfer portal. In football, that could complicate matters if coaches still hope to call a team to workouts in July and camp in August, provided the pandemic eases enough that football still happens in the fall.
If it’s voted down, the issue of first-time transfer eligibility is likely to be addressed by change to NCAA legislation that dictates transfer rules. That can be discussed as soon as January 2021 after the board agreed to lift a moratorium on changes to transfer legislation.
Steinbrecher told The Associated Press on April 30 that making the change through legislation might allow the NCAA a more comprehensive approach that clearly addresses issues with the change, like how Academic Progress Rating scores are affected, when athletes need to provide notification for their use of the first-time exception, and similar items.
A first-time transfer eligibility exception is likely. Now it seems the decision is if the council wants to implement the change through waiver rules now or punt until January and make the change through legislation ahead of the 2021-22 season.
“Clearly, we’ve inched our way towards a universal one-time transfer exception with the graduate transfer exception and with the viable reasons to get a transfer waiver,” BYU head men’s basketball coach Mark Pope told the Standard-Examiner. “I think there are so many unintended consequences that come with every change, especially seismic shifts like this. ... I think there’s probably some real good things that will happen with that and some real bad things that will happen with that.”