NEW HAVEN, Conn. – On January 8, 2021, the NCAA was scheduled to vote on two important and long-overdue policy amendments: loosening of NIL restrictions and transfer policies that require certain athletes to sit out a season after transferring schools. However, instead of voting on these proposals, the NCAA delayed amending them, citing a letter from the Justice Department that warned the NCAA that its proposals would likely violate antitrust law. Like with most issues in national organizations with large sums of money at stake, solutions are complex.
The intended and unintended consequences of each decision must be considered, and every decision should be made with the best interest of the college athlete at the core of the policy. Protecting the rights and well-being of student-athletes is of paramount importance. Once again, the NCAA has dithered and averted its duty of care for its athletes and opted for further draconian restrictions designed to maintain its investments in these programs. By doing so, the NCAA continues to ignore the well-being of its revenue-generating athletes. With this in mind, the following recommendations are presented.
- The Drake Group has long advocated for relaxing transfer restrictions and giving college athletes essentially the same rights as the general student body possesses. Although the NCAA has gradually loosened its transfer restrictions over the years, its current transfer policies still unduly restrict athletes from moving freely from school to school, as their coaches and non-athlete peers are allowed to do. Although the Drake Group does not necessarily condone athletes constantly shifting schools (for the sake of athletes maintaining their academic focus), they should nonetheless have the right to transfer schools without being penalized, especially if they wish to pursue educational pursuits at a school that better suits their needs, or if they need to escape an abusive coaching situation while continuing to compete in their sport and pursue a degree. The Drake Group enthusiastically advocates for changes in NCAA policies that obviate athletes’ desires to leave institutions, including abusive coaching. Transfer limitations are among such policies that require amendments to ensure better that the health, safety, and educational needs of college athletes are adequately met.
- Under the NCAA’s current transfer policies, certain athletes who want to transfer (those playing football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s hockey, and baseball) must file for a transfer waiver to gain immediate eligibility upon transferring and sit out for a season if their waiver is not approved. The NCAA has a long history of denying athletes transfer exemptions, even if athletes’ waiver requests were legitimate. For example, in 2019, Virginia Tech offensive lineman Brock Hoffman’s waiver was denied, even though he transferred schools to be closer to home so he could care for his mother, who had a brain tumor. That same year, Michigan offensive lineman James Hudson’s waiver was also denied, even though he wanted to transfer for mental health reasons. The NCAA’s history of denying waiver requests along with its requirement of “documented extenuating, extraordinary and mitigating circumstances outside of the athlete’s control that directly impacts the health, safety or well-being of the student-athlete” discourage athletes from transferring. Because their waiver requests are unlikely to be approved, they risk losing professional opportunities and the chance to sharpen their athletic skills through competition in academic and interpersonal environments that suit their respective and individual needs. Thus, as the DOJ suggests, the NCAA’s current policies unduly restrict trade by erecting invisible boundaries around athletic transfers.
- Another way the NCAA’s current transfer policies de-incentivize athletic transfers are through its scholarship policies. Although the transfer portal makes the process of transferring simpler for both athletes and athletics administrators, its convenience comes with a trade-off: once an athlete enters the transfer portal, their coach is free to discontinue that athlete’s financial aid at the end of its term. Thus, it is incredibly risky for athletes to enter the transfer portal unless they have a written scholarship agreement from their new coach, which, if done before entering the portal, is considered tampering and violates current NCAA rules.
- The NCAA has argued in the past that college athletes should be treated like non-athletes. Its Commitment to Sound Academic Standards, located in the Division 1 Manual, reads, in part: “The admission, academic standing and academic progress of student-athletes shall be consistent with the policies and standards adopted by the institution for the student body in general.” However, non-athlete students are allowed to transfer schools without any effect on their extracurricular activities. For example, if a student who participates in the marching band wants to transfer to another school, that student may do so without having to sit out of band competitions for a season. That same student also does not risk current scholarship funding upon declaring a desire to transfer. If the NCAA truly wants to treat college athletes like non-athlete students, it would be wise to loosen its transfer restrictions.
- College athletes from non-revenue-producing sports may use the NCAA’s one-time transfer exception to compete immediately at another institution, but those from revenue-producing sports such as football and basketball cannot compete for one year after transferring. That’s particularly egregious because although athletes often choose institutions based on coaches and style of play, their coaches are free to move to the highest-bidding institution. College athletes should not be treated like chattel, and transfer policies should be consistent to the rights and privileges of all students on campus.