Does the One-time Transfer Waiver Open the Door to Free-Agency?

Recruiting is the cornerstone of coaching, and the importance of recruiting the players a program needs cannot be understated. After recruiting a player for months or even years, the coach may decide that the player is exactly what their program needs and offer them a scholarship to play. If the player accepts, they likely sign a National Letter of Intent, which acts as a one-year agreement between the prospective student-athlete and the institution.

After signing, the prospective student-athlete has agreed to attend the institution full-time for one academic year. In return, the institution agrees to provide athletics financial aid for one academic year. The penalty for breaking the agreement under current NCAA bylaws is that a student-athlete who wishes to transfer has to serve one year in residence at the next institution and lose a competition season.

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Although the transferring student-athlete has to miss a full year of competition, they can redshirt and save that year of eligibility. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) has a five-year clock that starts when the student-athlete first enrolls as a full-time student at any college. In other words, the student-athlete can recoup the lost year of competition after completing their year in residency at the institution. However, there are some exceptions to this all-encompassing rule. If you transfer from a four-year school, you may be immediately eligible to compete at your new school if you meet all of the following conditions: you are transferring to a Division II or III school, or you are transferring to a Division I school in any sport other than baseball, men’s or women’s basketball, football or men’s ice hockey; you are academically and athletically eligible at your previous four-year school; you receive a transfer-release agreement from your previous four-year school; and a waiver.

The immediate eligibility is prohibited for student-athletes that play baseball, men’s or women’s basketball, football, or men’s ice hockey. There are some exceptions, of course. The NCAA now provides a graduation exception for those student-athletes who have graduated with a bachelor’s degree, meet other requirements of the one-time transfer exception, and have at least one season of competition left. Non-graduate student-athletes or graduate athletes who have already transferred once rely on waivers to participate immediately.

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The NCAA defines a waiver as “an action that sets aside an NCAA rule because a specific, extraordinary circumstance prevents you from meeting the rule.” The student-athlete institution must file a waiver on the student-athlete’s behalf. If the school fails to administer the waiver, the conference office or the NCAA will. Waiver requests may be filed by athletes who: no longer have opportunities to play at their original schools, are victims of egregious behavior that impacts their health and well-being, or those who need to be closer to home because of a recent injury or illness.

Suppose the student-athlete wants to transfer for any of the previously mentioned reasons. In that case, the NCAA requires that the institution prove an athlete transfer is “due to documented extenuating, extraordinary and mitigating circumstances outside of the student-athlete’s control.” This is a hard standard to meet, make the filing and approval of a waiver much like winning the lottery. However, coronavirus has brought a wave of change along with its devastation. In March 2019, the NCAA extended eligibility for student-athletes impacted by COVID-19. The NCAA allowed spring-sport student-athletes an additional season of competition and an extension of their period of eligibility. Further, the NCAA decided to let schools self-apply waivers to student-athletes who competed while eligible in the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season. Moreover, the NCAA announced a blanket waiver for 2020 fall sports athletes to retain a year of eligibility: “all fall sport student-athletes will receive both an additional year of eligibility and an additional year in which to complete it.”

This decision added another year to the five-year clock. The enormous amount of change brought forward the issue of allowing student-athletes a one-time free pass for transferring. The one-time transfer would allow student-athletes to transfer from an institution, for almost any reason, without having to sit out a year of competition. The NCAA Division I Council formed a Transfer Waiver Working Group that concluded, “the current system is unsustainable. Working group members believe it’s time to bring our transfer rules more in line with today’s college landscape.”

The one-time transfer waiver would allow uniformity among institutions that would ultimately benefit the student-athletes. The waiver is already permitted for student-athletes that compete in any other sport than baseball, basketball, football, or men’s ice hockey. Further, if the waiver is passed, first-time four-year transfers in any sport would be able to compete immediately if they: receive a transfer release from their previous school, leave their previous school academically eligible, maintain their academic progress, and do not leave under disciplinary suspension.

The new waiver rule has been highly criticized by coaches, who fear that this rule may create a “free-agent frenzy.” Mark Richt, the former football coach for the University of Georgia, tweeted his concern about the one-year transfer waiver, and its impact upon competition: “I know, I have an idea. You recruit and develop players, and when I think they’re good enough, I will poach them from your roster! Welcome to what the new normal will look like in college football.” 

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He has a point. If transferring is a free-for-all, it will entice players to transfer immediately for many reasons. They may transfer because they are unhappy or because they didn’t play as much as they thought they should. Maybe they didn’t like the coach, or perhaps a better school came along that wants to recruit them. Initially, the one-year residency rule was put in place to keep universities from recruiting off other campuses. The one-time transfer rule may create free agency and entice players to make quick, rash decisions that they may eventually regret. (Transfer student-athletes, according to NCAA data, are also less likely to graduate than non-transfers.)

Moreover, the rule may force college coaches to recruit through the transfer portal instead of solely recruiting high school athletes. There are also concerns about how athlete compensation may impact the one-time transfer rule. Student-athletes may transfer to another school simply because they have more resources to pay the student-athlete more money. If the student-athlete is allowed to transfer freely without sitting out a year, they may negotiate endorsement deals with institutions.  

Although not all coaches are against the one-year transfer waiver, the waiver would provide student-athletes with more freedom. However, the controversy over the rule caused the NCAA to table the discussion until January 2021, at which point it will have to determine whether student-athlete freedom outweighs free agency.

(Image Credit: Ken Ruinard / USA Today)

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