PHOENIX -- There’s distressing talk again about arguably the NCAA’s best rule in its vast rulebook. The graduate transfer exception -- the carrot that allows those with undergraduate degrees to transfer and play immediately at a new school while enrolled in a graduate program -- is under fire.
New NCAA Division I vice president Kevin Lennon says transfer rules, including the graduate transfer exception, are at the top of his priority list. Coaches are complaining that they want an end to immediate free agency. Commissioners are bemoaning a rule they say doesn’t fit the NCAA’s educational values and creates a “hired gun” mentality.
“It sort of smacks of 'hired gun,'” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “You wonder about kids leaving their teammates and going to a better offer. For me, I look at it from a player standpoint, and I think of the kid at Eastern Washington (quarterback Vernon Adams) who transferred to Oregon. What message does that send to his teammates that have been sweating and bleeding with him for three years? He gets a better offer and jumps ship. I’m not sure that’s a great message to send to a group of teammates.”
What message does it send when a coach leaves players who have been sweating and bleeding for him for three years?
“That’s true,” Bowlsby acknowledged. “There’s not any doubt about that. I don’t have a lot of experience (with the graduate transfer rule), so I’m going to have to listen.”
Bowlsby is arguably the most progressive major conference commissioner. When he's talking "hired gun," you know this rule is in danger. And that’s wrong. Of all the things the NCAA needs to worry about, adding another restriction like this isn't one of them.
This is all so silly. Administrators say this debate is happening because not enough graduate transfers are actually getting their graduate degrees. In reality, when you talk to coaches, you hear the real reason why.
“If they can legally take a player from an opponent down the street, what’s right about that, would be my question to you?” Duke football coach David Cutcliffe said. “We’ve raised them. We’ve educated them. What’s right about that?”
Maybe a player wants to leave for more playing time. Maybe a player wants to challenge himself at a higher level and get more exposure. Maybe a player is tired of his coach and wants a fresh start for one last chance to enjoy being a productive college player instead of sitting. Maybe a player will be motivated to stay in school so he or she can eventually have this flexibility as a transfer.
“If this motivates more guys to graduate on time in four years, great, then we’re continuing to raise the percentage of graduates,” said Stanford football coach David Shaw, who has recently lost three graduate transfers to other schools. “I don’t have a problem with it. They put their time in for us and got their work done, so hey, go ahead and play somewhere else.”
But that opinion appears to be in the minority in college sports now. I wanted to find out why.
'It just doesn't feel right'
The graduate transfer exception is the one NCAA rule that specifies to athletes exactly what they can do to earn more benefits. Even the new cost of attendance stipends, which will clearly benefit many students, aren’t based on academics or a required right for every athlete. Schools can decide how much to pay on cost of attendance and who gets it.
In contrast, the graduate transfer exception is basically the only rule that specifically attaches a valuable benefit for players (immediate free agency) to academics. If you graduate with eligibility left, congratulations, you’re free to pick another team if you so desire.
Are graduates transferring to other schools largely due to athletic reasons? Of course. So what?
“Well, that’s not the intent of the rule,” Kansas basketball coach Bill Self said. “The intent of the rule was to go for educational reasons. I feel it’s very wrong for a mid-major school to redshirt and develop a kid and all of a sudden he’s good enough to be recruitable by everybody in the country after he’s graduated. The fact they have to sit out, now they’re going for the right reasons, as opposed to just an athletic reason.”
Added Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson: “I don’t think (the graduate transfer rule) fits into the core values of intercollegiate athletics. It’s been done and people have taken advantage of it. I mean, the kid from Eastern Washington (Adams) is going to Oregon -- and they’re opening the season with them. It just doesn’t feel right.”
This is how college sports operates. If the adult leaves people hanging for a better opportunity, it’s part of doing business and capitalizing on his market value. If the player leaves people hanging for a better opportunity, it doesn’t feel right and he’s called a hired gun.
“To a certain degree when you recruit anyone, if you want to characterize it (as a hired gun), you can,” Oregon football coach Mark Helfrich said. “I think anybody who gets their degree and betters themselves, whether you’re a physics major and going to work for Google or you’re a track and field athlete, or whatever you happen to be, you’ve kind of earned that right.”
Exactly. Here’s where I get lost in the debate. Why in a multi-billion dollar industry would we negatively view athletes making decisions based on athletic reasons? When your industry chooses to play games on all days of the week, at all hours of the day, and at all places around the country, why would we expect the players who just experienced all of that to make graduate school decisions based on progressing toward a graduate degree?
The irony: Choosing where to transfer as a grad student isn't really much different than how many recruits pick their college out of high school. If we are to follow the logic that graduates should only transfer for educational reasons, then Northwestern, Duke, Wake Forest, Rice, Vanderbilt would be football powers because most elite high school prospects picked their college based on academics.
“My basic view where I start from: There should be a year of residence before competition,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. “It doesn’t mean you couldn’t extend the five-year rule. But if you want to go to graduate school and you’re a transfer, you would transfer, get a year of residence, go to graduate school, and then play but not immediate eligibility.”
Future SEC commissioner Greg Sankey supports graduate transfers playing immediately if they are actually progressing toward a graduate degree. “The opportunity to simply transfer and play and not engage in real academic work, that’s a concern,” Sankey said. “Most graduate programs are two years so there are ways to foster that kind of completion as part of this transfer effort.”
Or as Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott put it, “The number of graduate transfers isn’t mirroring the number of graduate degrees.”
What about graduates who don't transfer and keep playing?
Let’s assume the commissioners truly are concerned about graduate transfers taking academics more seriously. I’m willing to acknowledge this is a concern of the commissioners, largely because the NCAA is fighting to use its educational mission as the primary defense in antitrust litigation and before Congress to maintain the current amateurism model.
While granting those points, since when did college sports start counting graduate degrees and why? Are we actually headed toward an Academic Progress Rate mechanism -- a well-intentioned measurement that doesn't show the real quality of an undergraduate education -- to show progress toward a graduate degree?
“I think there ought to be some academic accountability measure,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “That’s kind of a missing link and I think we need to get our hands around that.”
According to the NCAA, only 24 percent of the graduate transfers in football and 32 percent of those in men’s basketball had earned a graduate degree two years after they transferred. The graduate degree numbers are higher for graduate transfers in other men’s sports (40 percent), women’s basketball (47 percent) and other women’s sports (66 percent).
Nearly 40 percent of the football graduate transfers leave at the end of their first graduate term. They typically withdraw when their playing eligibility ends. At this point, it's worth remembering these players have already graduated and fulfilled the stated goal of going to college.
Left unspoken: What about players who graduate and stay at their school with immediate eligibility left? Are we to believe they all seriously pursue a graduate degree instead of simply taking enough classes to play until their eligibility expires? Should those players sit if they stay at their school but are not truly progressing toward a graduate degree? Why is it academically OK for those graduates to continue playing but not transfers?
"Um, I don't have a good answer for you, because I don't know that we're tracking that," the Pac-12's Scott said.
Scott is right. The NCAA said it can’t currently provide data on the number of grad students who stay at their same school and earn a degree. That’s pretty important information if the NCAA is going to connect transferring as the root cause for athletes who don’t obtain a grad degree while in grad school.
“I think that’s a fair question,” Steinbrecher said. “I think it doesn’t feel right to me, and I don’t think the optics of it are very good when someone goes through that process, stays a semester, doesn’t really even conclude the academic semester, and then is gone.”
Lost in translation are these points:
1. We’re not talking about a huge number of graduate transfers. According to ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman, only 52 of the 640 Division I men’s basketball transfers after the 2013-14 season were graduate transfers, with only eight of those moving from the mid-majors to high-majors. In football, the rule most notably comes in play at quarterback, such as Russell Wilson (who was not guaranteed a starting spot at NC State) leaving for Wisconsin and blossoming into a Super Bowl quarterback. If you think the Oregons of the world are going to be constantly raiding FCS programs for a quarterback, you’re dreaming.
2. Schools can already tell graduate transfers where they can and can’t go. The school that loses the player must provide a release (a whole other topic that’s unfair). So there is a mechanism in place to stop the graduate transfer -- it's just one that publicly embarrasses the school.
The Student-Athlete Advisory Committee hasn’t taken a position yet on the graduate transfer rule. Kendall Spencer, a recent New Mexico long jumper who chairs SAAC and sits on the NCAA Division I board of directors, sounded like a politician on the topic.
“There are some student-athletes who would really appreciate having flexibility and being able to fulfill their obligation to the university and pursue a graduate degree somewhere else,” Spencer said. “We want to be very cautious of that having a huge, negative impact on student-athletes who are doing it the right way and who are transferring hopefully for the right reasons -- academically, I assume.”
There’s that phrase again: It doesn’t look right, it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t right. Why? I tend to believe it's largely because the NCAA, unlike the pros, never had immediate free agency until the grad transfer rule so it “feels wrong” if a coach and teammates lose a key player. Sports, after all, are based on the concept of teamwork.
What we’re really talking about here isn't graduate degrees but how universities view players as assets. Administrators and coaches want to maximize the most from players after training them, feeding them and paying for their education. You would too if your job depended on wins and losses, and not graduation rates.
But in an era when doing more for college athletes is the catch phrase, that doesn’t justify eliminating the NCAA’s best rule on behalf of players.