NCAA Division I Council Passes Transfer Reform Easing Restrictions

The NCAA’s Division I Council on Wednesday voted to approve a rule change that allows all Division I athletes in all sports a one-time waiver to transfer and be immediately eligible. The rule change is effective immediately. The vote, which won’t become official until the Council concludes its meeting Thursday, was first reported by Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic.

The decision ends a long, protracted process to bring uniformity to the transfer rules and provide more freedom for athletes. Previously, baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, football and men’s hockey required players to sit out a season when transferring. All other sports already operated with a one-time transfer exception.

This proposal was originally proposed in February 2020 by the NCAA’s transfer working group, which had been tasked with streamlining the transfer rules. At the time, the hope was to get it passed later that spring. Instead, it was hit with several delays. The first was the pandemic and the cancellation of 2020’s winter and spring sports championships, leading to a lot of uncertainty around college sports and other items, such as eligibility relief, to take priority.

The issue was then expected to be passed in January at the NCAA Convention, but was again delayed when, on the eve of the convention, the Justice Department told the NCAA its proposal to allow players to be compensated for their name, image and likeness in things like endorsements and video games was too restrictive to not run afoul of anti-trust regulations. Despite the federal government clarifying that the transfer rule was not part of its concern, the NCAA still tabled both votes.

This week, finally, there were no more delays and the Division I Council passed the transfer reform it has spent the last four years developing and debating.

The waiver change will have a significant effect on baseball. It long operated like other sports with the one-time transfer exemption but in 2008, in a series of moves designed to improve the sport’s Academic Progress Rate and graduation rate, it was eliminated, and the sport was grouped with basketball, football and hockey. Within two years of the change, the percentage of players who had made a 4-4 transfer (a transfer from one four-year school to another) dropped from 8.4 to 3.5 and the percentage of players who had transferred at all (including those coming from junior college) fell from 26.2 to 22.4.

Now, the sport will return to the free transfer era. Every player will be able to transfer once without having to sit out a year (any subsequent 4-4 transfers would require a “year-in-residence”). The lone stipulation for baseball players (and all spring sports athletes) to receive the one-time waiver is that they must inform their current school of their intent to transfer by July 1. They don’t need to have chosen a new school by that date; they simply need to be in the transfer portal by then to be eligible the following spring.

The notification date will be a little tight for some baseball players. The College World Series is the last event on the NCAA’s calendar and this year does not end until June 30. For players competing in Omaha, the end of the season and the date by which they must enter the transfer portal will come in rapid succession.

The July 1 notification date should, however, help curb the practice of recruiting players in college summer leagues as potential transfers. It was a common practice during the last free transfer era, which John Cohen, Mississippi State athletic director and former head coach, called the Wild West.

“What you’ve had in the past is coaches hanging out in a place like the Cape Cod League, keeping (scholarship) money back and waiting for a so-called mid-major player to pop up,” he said. “Even though they couldn’t contact them directly, they just decided to transfer and some of these schools had scholarship aid available.”

The transfer issue has long been contentious in college baseball. In 2005, Dave Keilitz, then the executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association, told Baseball America, “I’m trying to think of the last time we had a Division I business meeting and it wasn’t discussed.”

Some coaches today believe it isn’t right to restrict players in a partial scholarship sport from leaving to find a better situation, especially financially. Others remember the landscape before 2008 and aren’t keen to return to it.

But the NCAA has been trending in this direction for several years now. First, it allowed players who graduated with eligibility remaining to freely transfer. Later, it created the transfer portal, providing a more transparent transfer process and ending the practice of a coach or school blocking a player to transfer to a specific school or schools. It also passed a rule that enabled players who are not (and had not previously been) on an athletic scholarship to transfer and be immediately eligible.

Broader reform had remained elusive and several high-profile transfer situations complicated the matter for the NCAA. Football players who aggressively pursued transfer waivers were more commonly being declared immediately eligible, like Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, leading to confusion about the waiver process.

Recently, NCAA president Mark Emmert spoke in favor of the one-time transfer waiver at a press conference before the Final Four.

“Students ought to have that ability to transfer once, at least, during their career,” he said. “I understand the complexity that that creates for coaches, and I understand that it does create uncertainty in roster management and all of that. But I think it’s overdue that we provide that flexibility to students.”

Opening the transfer market will create another layer of complexity in roster construction for baseball coaches. Already, they are juggling caps on scholarships, roster size and the minimum percentage of scholarships. Baseball faces unique challenges with those restrictions, as well as the robust junior college ranks and the draft.

But baseball is a partial-scholarship sport. Its players routinely graduate with college debt, unlike their counterparts in basketball and football. In such an environment, restricting players from moving to a better situation has never sat well with many.

The transfer reform debate is now settled, not only for baseball, but for all sports. Conferences, schools and athletic directors could no longer find a justification for one set rules governing one set of players – who primarily play in revenue sports – and another set of rules for the rest.

So, now, baseball goes back to the future with its transfer policy. The new rules will undoubtedly cause a significant amount of player movement this summer and require coaches to adapt their roster construction strategy. How much movement and how quickly players and coaches adapt will be something to watch.

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