You know the NCAA's graduate transfer rule? The one that allows a student-athlete who has completed his undergraduate degree to transfer to a new school without sitting out a year––thereby avoiding the primary penalty for transferring––so long as this student-athlete is seeking a graduate degree at his or her new school?
Turns out this new system, in practice, didn't end up being about pursuing post-graduate study at all. Rather, it became a way to transfer without sitting out a year and opened up an entirely new market, stocked with experienced players, for coaches who needed to immediately supplement a roster.
Who could've seen that coming?
Not the NCAA, so now the Division I Council is mulling a proposal meant to curb that practice by making grad transfers count against schools' scholarship totals for two years regardless of how many they play (most grad transfers play only one).
“The so-called graduate degree is really not the aspiration,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “The aspiration is to be featured, and usually featured at a higher level.”
Changing the rule could slow the flow of grad transfers by making coaches more reluctant to take on players with only with one year of eligibility remaining.
“Roster management is such a critical component of every collegiate coach and then to say that you’re going to burn a scholarship for another year afterward, where an individual is not even playing, that’s obviously a pretty high price,” said Todd Berry, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association.
It is a high price, but there exists an exemption for grad transfers with just one year of eligibility remaining at their new school. If the student-athlete completes his or her graduate degree before the start of the following year, thus proving their intentions were true (I guess), then the scholarship would no longer count against the school's total.
Let's use Tre Neal as an example. A safety at UCF for two years under Scott Frost and staff at UCF, he transferred to Nebraska to play his final season with those coaches. He also was legitimately seeking a dental school and UNL has one. Had the proposed rule change been in place, his scholarship would count against Nebraska's total in 2019. Unless Neal earned his dental degree in a year.
Darrion Daniels, one of the stars of the Huskers' spring game last week, used the grad transfer exemption to play one season with his younger brother, Damion, also a defensive tackle at Nebraska.
Knowing some of the specifics, it's hard for me to view either of those scenarios as a blight on amateur athletics but when they're just data points––two of X transfers, where X is alarmingly large in the view of some––it's easier to become convinced there's a growing problem. And there certainly are examples where pursuing graduate work is merely the paperwork required for an athlete to be able to play a sport at a new place, help the team immediately and then move on.
But before I react with mock shock that this rule––which was always going to be exploited if there was an advantage to be had, just like every other new rule––is being exploited, I want more than just the perception that this is a problem. I want to see how many graduate transfers aren't completing their degrees, compared to the number of students who start a graduate degree and never finish it? I'm guessing that rate would be higher for athletes, but if there is a difference, how much of the difference can be explained by the fact that some of these athletes have a huge financial incentive to enter the job market (i.e. professional athletics) right away? Maybe then I would have a better sense of just how big this perceived problem actually is. That’s something you don’t get from, “sure are a lot of graduate transfers now.”
That wouldn't, however, eliminate the thing that really bothers me about this proposed change. It's the thing that almost always bothers me about how the NCAA handles these things. It has the moral high ground because it can always play the "we want to return the focus to academics." That's great as an ideal. In a vacuum, almost everyone wants it to be that way, too.
But it only comes about after the world of big-time college athletics has started to look, or be perceived to look, too much like what it is, revenue generation with an amateur model. And that has always been a contradiction, one the NCAA has had to fight hard to maintain for its entire existence and one it has found can exist if the contradiction stays in the shadow world between pure, altruistic amateurism and the free-market model of professional sports where it is hardest to fully see.
When things like the grad transfer rule, however, start to push college sports out of that middle ground and people start throwing around terms like "free agency," a pro sports term, then something must be done. But only enough to get things back to the shadow world, where everything else then remains the same.
Control what you can control, I guess. Or at least the thing people care most about right now. Maybe the proposed change, which could be voted on this week, will curb graduate transfers. But that would be all it’s changing, which again feels like just a little more sleight of hand.
The Grab Bag
- On that note, some really good stuff here on roster building on the basketball side from Derek Peterson and why NU’s new coaches would prefer to avoid grad transfers.
- There’s a new Greg’s Guys list, updated after Nebraska added one of its top targets in the 2020 class.
- Jacob Padilla caught up with one of Nebraska basketball’s targets for the 2022 class, Tamin Lipsey. (Premium)
- Nebraska baseball was shut out for the first time this season, dropping Tuesday night’s home game 5-0 to Kansas State.
Today’s Song of Today