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Transfer Reform On D-I Council's Agenda, But Change Expected To Be Delayed



The NCAA’s transfer working group – the committee tasked with streamlining the NCAA’s complex transfer rules – in February released a proposal that would allow all Division I athletes in all sports a one-time waiver to transfer and be immediately eligible.

It hoped to quickly advance the proposed rule change and have it approved by the Division I Council in the spring, in time for it to go into effect for the 2020-21 school year.

The waiver change would have a significant effect on baseball, which is one of five sports (men’s and women’s basketball, football and men’s hockey) in which players are required to sit out a season when transferring. Baseball 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.

Since the working group’s February proposal, however, much has changed.

It came about a month before the coronavirus pandemic led the NCAA to cancel all its winter and spring sports’ championships. A financial crunch across college athletics followed. Those two events have led to a slew of other NCAA business, from how to handle the eligibility of spring sports athletes who had their seasons cancelled in March to requests from schools to ease some of the requirements of being a Division I member.

When the transfer working group in April made its presentation to the NCAA’s Board of Directors and Presidential Forum, recommending the one-time transfer waiver be expanded to cover all sports, the Board recommended that those changes were “not appropriate at this time.” The Board did agree to lift its moratorium on transfer legislation for next school year’s legislative cycle, which could clear the way for transfer reform and recommended that the existing waiver process “be sensitive to student-athlete well-being, especially those impacted by COVID-19 in the interim period.”

The NCAA’s Division I Council will meet Wednesday and transfer reform is expected to be one of the issues it discusses. But following the Board’s recommendation, the sweeping waiver change is no longer expected to pass. Many in college sports still expect it to be approved in the future, possibly as soon as January.

What sort of interim waiver measures the Council adopts remain to be seen. But a part of the desire for transfer reform is the perceived uneven way the current waiver process has played out across college sports. 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.

Transfer reform is a divisive issue among baseball coaches. Some remember how the pre-2008 transfer market felt like the Wild West, with some coaches recruiting players in summer leagues and mid-major programs worrying about their best players leaving for bigger programs. Others believe it isn't right to restrict players in a partial scholarship sport from leaving to find a better situation, especially financially.

In this specific situation, however, many believe a one-time transfer waiver would have been helpful as they deal with a roster crunch caused by the decision to grant an extra year of eligibility to all spring sports athletes and MLB’s decision to cut the draft from 40 rounds to five. A blanket one-time waiver exemption would have made it easier for players who are feeling the squeeze from returning seniors or a larger than expected group of newcomers to transfer to find a place where they could play more. Instead, if they want to leave their current program, they likely now will have to chose between sitting out a year or transferring to a junior college.

That hasn’t stopped players from entering the NCAA’s Transfer Portal. There are about 900 players in the portal, a number which includes players from the two programs that have been eliminated (Bowling Green and Furman) and many returning seniors who must find new programs after their schools opted not to give them the extra year of eligibility, like those in the Ivy League. Just entering the portal does not guarantee that a player will leave, but it does give an idea of how much player movement baseball may be in for this summer.

Last summer, the first with both the transfer portal and freer movement of walk-ons, about 1,500 players in Division I and II put their names in the portal. That’s an average of about three players per team, a similar rate to this year.

Among this year’s transfers are some impactful players, such as lefthander/outfielder Lael Lockheart, who is moving from Houston to Arkansas as a graduate transfer, and slugger Brett Centracchio, another graduate transfer going to North Carolina from Davidson.

An increase in transfers would give baseball coaches a new complexity in roster management to go with caps on roster size and scholarships, a minimum percentage of scholarship for every player and the uncertainty of the draft. But with reform publicly backed by the ACC and Big Ten, it is expected to eventually pass. No longer can schools, conferences and athletic directors 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.

When, exactly, that will happen remains unclear. Baseball, like the rest of the college sports world, is watching and waiting for the final decision.

Kevin Parada Billmitchell

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