NCAA And Conference Transfer Regulations Need To Align With Principles

May 30th, 2017 | by Dan Matheson
NCAA And Conference Transfer Regulations Need To Align With Principles

It is transfer season in college basketball.  ESPN recently reported that the number of men’s college basketball student-athletes planning to transfer schools this year is nearly 500.  The decision to transfer is a significant one for those young men, because NCAA and conference rules will force them to sit out a year of competition and place additional restrictions on them.  While the NCAA characterizes transfer regulations as being for the benefit of student-athletes, the truth is that the regulations apply unevenly and seem to serve the interests of schools and conferences as much or more than those of student-athletes.   

NCAA bylaw states, “A transfer student from a four-year institution shall not be eligible for intercollegiate competition at a member institution until the student has fulfilled a residence requirement of one full academic year,” at his or her new school.  During this year of residence, transfer student-athletes are banned from competition.  There are, however, possible exceptions to that competition ban, with the most significant being the one-time transfer exception found in bylaw  Under the one-time transfer exception, a student-athlete may compete immediately at the new school if:

  • He or she does not play basketball, bowl subdivision (FBS) football, baseball or men’s ice hockey.
  • He or she has not transferred previously.
  • He or she was academically eligible at the previous school.
  • The school he or she is transferring from states in writing that it does not object to the student-athlete’s use of the exception.

Conference rules may include additional restrictions.  For example, the Big Ten Conference has an intra-conference transfer rule that requires scholarship student-athletes to complete the year of residence and strips one season of eligibility if transferring from one Big Ten school to another.  The Big Ten Conference has acknowledged that it intended for its intra-conference transfer rule to include a punitive element.  The Pac-12 Conference and most others have similar rules.  

Coaches can place further limitations on student-athlete transfers.  As outlined in the University of Maryland’s student-athlete handbook, if a student-athlete intends to transfer, the head coach will be consulted to determine if the coach will release the student-athlete to speak to other schools, and if so, whether the coach will place any limitations on the release.  This can lead to negative outcomes, such as the one involving then men’s basketball student-athlete Jarrod Uthoff in 2012.  Uthoff informed the University of Wisconsin that he wished to transfer, and then head coach Bo Ryan restricted him from speaking to about two dozen schools.  Ryan ultimately relented and only limited Uthoff from talking to other Big Ten schools after Ryan faced a media firestorm for what many perceived to be an overly restrictive initial set of release conditions.  Despite the limitation placed on his transfer, Uthoff stayed within the conference at the University of Iowa and was required to pay for his schooling during his year of residency and sit out a season.  As the NCAA guide for transfers explains, “If your current school does not provide the permission-to-contact letter, your new school cannot contact you.  You may still transfer to your new school, but you will not be eligible for an athletics scholarship until you have attended your new school for one academic year.”

The issue with all of this is that the layers of transfer regulations and their application does not align with what the NCAA claims to be their intended purpose.  The NCAA website assures student-athletes that the year off from competition when transferring, “is an opportunity to adjust to your new school and focus on your studies rather than sports.”  Really?  If the NCAA has determined that there is an essential adjustment period needed to focus on studies, then why is there a one-time exception that allows student-athletes in some sports to compete immediately?  Do football student-athletes require a year to focus on studies after transferring more than wrestlers require it?  And why does the transfer student-athlete’s former school have the right to approve or deny the use of the one-time exception?  Either the year to focus on studies rather than sports is necessary or it is not.  This can give the school control over a transfer for strategic and competitive purposes, not for the best interests of the student-athlete.

If the NCAA is genuinely concerned about an adjustment period to focus on studies, that year off from competition would best be applied to freshmen.  The academic adjustment from high school to college is far more dramatic than going from Wisconsin to Iowa after a year or two in college.  Incoming freshmen in some sports that start early, such as football and soccer, can practice and compete before they even set foot in a classroom.  Clearly, adjusting to a new school and focusing on studies rather than sports is not the only, or even the primary, motive behind requiring transfer student-athletes to sit out for a year.  It is more of a deterrent than an academic adjustment period.

While the NCAA transfer guide states that, “NCAA transfer rules are designed to help student-athletes…make sensible decisions about the best place to earn a degree and develop athletic skills,” schools and conferences can restrict a student-athlete’s ability to transfer based solely on school and conference competitive interests.  For example, when Bo Ryan initially provided a list of schools that Jarrod Uthoff was prohibited from contacting, he started by blocking all rival Big Ten schools and all ACC schools since the Big Ten had future games scheduled against the ACC.  Ryan also blocked Uthoff from speaking to the University of Florida and Marquette University because Wisconsin would play both teams in the future.  Conference rules that take away a year of eligibility to discourage student-athletes from transferring within a league, as outlined above, and coaches establishing obstacles to prevent student-athletes from playing for competitors are not motives rooted in helping student-athletes find their best fit for earning a degree and competing in athletics.  

Student-athletes transfer for a variety of reasons, just like their non-athlete peers.  The punitive nature of NCAA and conference transfer regulations and their uneven application based on the sport played and the coach of the team do not align with the NCAA’s stated purpose for the regulations.  It is time to refocus the rules to help student-athletes end up at the school that gives them an academic and athletic experience that best fits their goals, regardless of which school they first signed with at 17 years of age.

Dan Matheson About Dan Matheson
Dan Matheson, J.D., is director of the University of Iowa Sport & Recreation Management program. Prior to joining the Iowa faculty, Matheson was an NCAA associate director of enforcement and the New York Yankees baseball operations director. He serves on Iowa’s Presidential Committee on Athletics and is a dynamic keynote speaker and panelist who has received multiple teaching honors.

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