Why NCAA’s desire to block grad transfers is absolutely absurd
Vernon Adams Jr. is on the cusp of achieving an unprecedented rags-to-riches story. Barely recruited out of high school five years ago, the former Eastern Washington quarterback developed into one of the nation’s top performers at his level. Now, thanks to the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule, Adams will spend his final college season at FBS power Oregon, where he’ll compete for a job vacated by Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.
Save for jilted Eastern Washington supporters, Adams would seem an easy figure to cheer. He put in the work for four years, earned his degree and will now get to live out a dream to play with the big boys.
Yet to various coaches and administrators around the country, Adams has unwittingly become a poster child for a rule they’d like to see changed.
"I don’t think [the rule] fits into the core values of intercollegiate athletics," Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson told reporters recently. "The kid from Eastern Washington is going to Oregon — and [Eastern Washington is] opening the season [against] them. It just doesn’t feel right."
"What message does that send to his teammates that have been sweating and bleeding with him for three years?" Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told CBSSports.com. "He gets a better offer and jumps ship. I’m not sure that’s a great message to send to a group of teammates."
As NCAA matters go, their hypocrisy is unsurprising, yet no less infuriating.
In 2012, Benson left a job he’d held for 18 years as commissioner of the WAC when it became apparent that conference was crumbling. (It dropped football a year later.) He now oversees a more stable conference. That same year, Bowlsby left his post as athletic director at Stanford, whose football program he’d helped rescue from the ashes, to take a prestigious job as commissioner of one of the Power 5 conferences.
As adults with college degrees, no one questioned either’s right to better themselves professionally. They earned those opportunities thanks to strong performances in their chosen field.
But when it comes to a college athlete like Adams — himself now an adult with a college degree — the ability to leave one place for a career-boosting opportunity at another is seen as a breakdown in need of correction. Perhaps Benson and Bowlsby can empathize with the little guy (Eastern Washington) having its prized asset poached. After all, both oversee conferences that pilfered other leagues’ schools during realignment.
And those two are hardly alone in their positions. Judging from conversations at recent spring meetings in Dallas and Phoenix, it’s clear that Everett Golson — the former Notre Dame quarterback who announced his transfer intentions last week — may be among the last-ever wave of college football free agents. The NCAA recently established a committee to examine overhauling its transfer policies, with the graduate rule smack atop the priority list.
"If you’re transferring to be in a graduate program, the NCAA wants you to be working in earnest toward that degree rather than just using up your last year of eligibility," NCAA VP Kevin Lennon told the Associated Press.
"The number of graduate transfers isn’t exactly marrying up with the number of graduate degrees. That raises a red flag for me," said Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott. "We want to encourage student-athletes getting their graduate degrees. I don’t think we want to encourage people using a loophole to get another year of eligibility."
To be clear, few would dispute that this so-called loophole has become exactly that. The rule, which dates to 2005, allows an athlete who’s completed his degree to transfer and play immediately if the current school doesn’t offer his or her preferred graduate program.
No one’s under the delusion that Golson, an aspiring NFL prospect, will be choosing his new school primarily for a curriculum. NCAA data shows that nearly 40 percent of football grad transfers leave grad school after just one semester.
"They’re not going to that school for their so-called specific masters degree," said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. "They’re going there because the playing situation is better for them. And I think everyone knows that."
Indeed. And it’s easy to see why a coach who loses a key player might not like the graduate transfer rule.
But then again, Rodriguez in 2007 left his alma mater, West Virginia, for the coaching equivalent of more playing time — i.e. more money — at fabled Michigan. No one suggested that he should sit out a season first.
"If we can go get a million-dollar contract somewhere else, why can’t the player leave?" said Akron coach Terry Bowden. "It’s no different than schools that want to get rid of a coach or a coach that wants to leave in the middle of his five-year contract. Nobody stops them."
Hence, why this budding push to change or eliminate the rule is so maddening.
Just last year, college athletics leaders were falling all over themselves to push through so-called "student-athlete welfare" initiatives. With the power conferences awash in massive TV and postseason revenue and facing pushback like ex-Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter’s unionization bid, the NCAA finally approved benefits like full cost-of-attendance scholarships, unlimited meals and travel reimbursement for players’ families.
Now, in 2015, the big reform push appears to be academics, from Jim Delany’s "year of readiness" (freshman ineligibility) proposal to the transfer initiative. While noble-minded in theory, so far administrators’ best ideas involve eliminating playing opportunities that athletes currently enjoy.
Undergraduate transfers were already highly restricted, and now, beginning this fall, the NCAA has eliminated hardship waivers that certain athletes with troubled situations like a family illness back home applied for to attain immediate eligibility.
Still, that seeming disincentive has not managed to curb the ever-growing list of transfers in men’s basketball in particular. According to 2013 research by Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn, 34.3 percent of top 100 recruits who entered college from 2007-11 wound up transferring at some point in their careers.
"I think it’s a very poor comment on the relationship between the sport of basketball and higher education," said the Big 12’s Bowlsby.
Told that those numbers mirror the number of transfers among all college students — reported to be around 33 percent — Bowlsby replied, "Those other students aren’t on full scholarship."
Few would advocate that all athletes should be free to transfer at will, with the massive chaos that would cause. It’s also hard to imagine leaders could implement anything more restrictive than the current arrangement, in which coaches can effectively block athletes from transferring to certain schools.
Graduate transfers are the lone variety remaining that enjoys a little bit of flexibility — ostensibly because they earned it by graduating from college. Which is supposedly the primary endeavor of college athletics.
Except, apparently, when it causes inconveniences.
You might think Stanford’s David Shaw would oppose the rule. For one thing, he’s the coach at one of the nation’s most prestigious institutions. If something’s perceived to be making a mockery of academics, he’s likely to be among the chief critics. Furthermore, since nearly all of his players graduate in four years, his team is more ripe than most to lose them. This offseason alone, Stanford has added one grad transfer, Cal defensive end Brennan Scarlett, but lost four of its own, including former starting cornerback Wayne Lyons to Michigan.
"I’ve been excited for those guys," said Shaw. "They fulfilled their part, they got their undergraduate degree, they’re college graduates. If they want to use that fifth year somewhere else at a different program, I personally see no problem with that."
In short, it’s patently absurd for officials who claim to have athletes’ best interests in mind to be threatening one of the most athlete-friendly rules in their book, not to mention one that specifically incentivizes players to graduate. No, most of them don’t go on to complete their master’s degrees, but that doesn’t mean they don’t better themselves.
Former NC State grad transfer Russell Wilson might have never blossomed into a Super Bowl quarterback without his one season in Wisconsin’s pro-style offense.
Former Valparaiso basketball star Brandon Wood likely never would have experienced the Sweet 16 if not for getting his degree and spending his senior season at Michigan State. Wood now plays professionally in Europe.
Former Florida offensive lineman and grad transfer Ian Silberman became a full-time starter for the first time as a senior at Boston College and got drafted by the San Francisco 49ers earlier this month.
The list could go on and on.
Yet, through strictly administrative lenses, those names are merely part of an unflattering data set.
All across the country this month, graduates in the class of 2015 will hear from various speakers all offering their version of a timeless commencement theme — "follow your dream." In the unduly controlled world of college athletics, Vernon Adams is somehow being seen as sending a bad message for doing just that.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.