The NCAA is not doing it the right way. COVID-19 chaos prompted the NCAA to give college athletes the ability to transfer with immediate eligibility. They are now making this permanent.
This effectively gives every college athlete free agent status, making it possible to move to another school without penalty. The five sports affected, football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s ice hockey and baseball all provide professional opportunities for the best players. They also generate the preponderance of revenue for college intercollegiate athletic departments.
The most obvious impact of the new policy is that power conference teams will use mid-major and low-major schools as their farm systems. A good but not high-major talent athlete in high school will likely use his or her first scholarship to enhance their skills with the hope of transferring to a high-major in a power conference, translating into playing in better facilities and in markets with more national exposure.
For basketball, it will be more difficult for mid-major schools to build teams composed of several seniors that can compete with talent-laden high-majors. Mid-majors may then begin to poach from low-majors, or even Division II or III schools, creating a cascading effect that will impact every school in the talent food chain.
For coaching staffs, recruiting will become a planning nightmare. Given the transfer mobility available, coaches may place less emphasis on recruiting athletes directly out of high school, focusing their attention on transfer portals where a larger body of college level performance exists to evaluate players. This will make it more difficult for all but the very best high school seniors to find college scholarship offers at the top schools, forcing them to accept mid-major offers as they bide their time until high-major opportunities arrive.
Setting aside the sports, student-athletes are still students. Participation in college athletics provides a forum for character building, with self-discipline and sacrifice often taught during adversity. Young people recruited to their choice school but who do not get the playing minutes they feel they deserve, can now move to another school promising more playing time, with no personal penalty or sacrifice. How can that support character-building among impressionable and frequently impulsive 18-24-year-olds?
If the NCAA grants student-athletes immediate eligibility, they should also permit schools to offer incentives for staying and disincentives for transferring, creating a pathway for player compensation. The NCAA can establish a tiered compensation program for student-athletes that kick in after the players stay at a school for two years; they are payable at the end of this time period, with bonuses offered for those who stay at least three years. In addition, making transferring students ineligible for such compensation at their new school will provide appropriate transfer headwinds.
If compensation is off the table, the NCAA can grant all student-athletes five years of eligibility out of high school, with students who transfer losing one or two of these years.
The worst aspect of immediate eligibility is that it erodes the “student” component in student-athlete. Some will argue that this is long-overdue. However, given that most student-athletes never earn their living playing professionally, moving to another school requires all the academic requirements be transferred to ensure that students are able to graduate and gain the advantages offered with their degree and college experience.
In reality, the immediate eligibility policy is a red herring to the major problem faced by big-time college sports, all revolving around money. Evidence of this is most apparent anytime a coach is fired and joins a new school. During their introduction, they outline their aspirations for the program, adding the phrase “and we will do it the right way.” Does this suggest that other coaches, particularly those who are keeping their jobs and have winning programs, are not doing it the right way? Men’s basketball coaches often dominate the NCAA investigation list, with current and former coaches at high profile programs like Kansas University, Auburn University, Arizona University and USC under scrutiny.
Money speaks loudly in the arms race of compensation for coaches and their staff. The University of Illinois and University of Kentucky battle for men’s basketball assistant coaches exemplify the high stakes, big money fights in men’s college basketball. With football and men’s basketball coaches at public schools typically the highest paid state employees, the time is right to create compensation caps across all schools. This will permit every school to allocate a fixed amount of resources across each of their programs, balancing staff compensation, facilities, the number of scholarships and player compensation. Such reforms can serve to put the college back into college sports.
With such a systematic overhaul, student-athletes will be treated in a manner commensurate with their roles, both on the court and on campus. This is how to do it the right way.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in risk-based assessment to evaluate and inform public policy. He is the founder of the Bracketodds website, a college basketball STEM Learning Lab at the University.