Emerson’s view: The real problem in the transfer mess

Nick Saban is only making use of the rules the NCAA provides him. That's the issue.

It should be obvious to every reasonable person – assuming some still exist in college football – that the sport has a transfer problem. And it’s not because of the players wanting to transfer too much, or the coaches wanting to stop it too much.

It’s the rules.

For all the slings and arrows that coaches are taking over Maurice Smith, A.J. Turman and many other cases, the coaches are just exploiting the rules at their disposal. There’s an easy solution to that, thought it won’t make head coaches happy.

Too bad.

Let’s back up: When we say a school is “blocking” a player from transferring to another school, technically that’s not what happening. Yes, Nick Saban is blocking Maurice Smith from not only playing at Georgia this year but also from receiving financial aid from Georgia – this year. But Smith, if he wanted to, could enroll at Georgia this year, sit out while receiving a scholarship, and then play in 2017. Saban cannot prevent that from happening.

But if you’re Maurice Smith and his family, is it fair to ask them to foot the bill for a year when the University of Georgia is offering to do it? Because of NCAA rules, you would in this scenario have two willing parties (UGA and Smith) not able to enter into a financial agreement because of a third party (Saban).

Occasionally, players are desperate enough to go somewhere that they pay their own way at their new school for the year. One case I covered: In 2008, Nevada wouldn’t allow basketball player Malik Cooke to transfer closer to home, so it blocked him from signing with South Carolina. Cooke did anyway, and just paid his own way for a year before going on scholarship.

Smith could do that at Georgia. But why should he have to resort to it?

Were it to be challenged in court, it’s hard to see that part of the NCAA bylaws being held up. This is different from a non-compete clause in business contracts. These are not, as the NCAA likes to remind us, employees. They are students first – again, the NCAA’s emphasis – and in the rest of the college world, students are allowed to transfer from one school to another without strings attached.

This, of course, is setting aside two other key points in the transfer hullabaloo:

  1. Whether Smith, having earned his degree, has earned the right to transfer anywhere he wants.
  2. Whether the NCAA should force any players to sit out a season, when coaches don’t have to upon moving jobs.

Point 1 is the stronger one. But SEC rules allow Saban to “block” Smith anyway. So that should be taken up with the SEC, but it won’t be until next summer. And by then this may all be long forgotten anyway.

Point 2 will receive the most argument. Coaches and administrators will argue that if you don’t force transferring players to sit out one season, then you’ll basically have free agency every year in college athletics. It’s a debatable point: As friend and colleague Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated points out, the solution to not having that happen is to, hello, keep the players happy, and if they’re not happy, then let them leave.

There’s one more part of this that doesn’t make sense.

A.J. Turman.

In Turman’s case, the great injustice didn’t turn out to be the original block that Smart put on Turman’s release. Turman didn’t want to go to Miami anyway, and he ended up at Florida Atlantic, a school he would have been able to go to under Smart’s original, limited release.

But Turman must sit out this season at Florida Atlantic. That’s the great injustice. He never played a down at Georgia. He suited up last year, but never got in a game, and yet under the NCAA’s arcane rules he must still sit out the 2016 season because he transferred. That makes zero sense.

There should be some sort of easy waiver process that allows someone like Turman to play right away. Players are allowed to play right away if they transfer “down a level” from FBS to anywhere else. Why not within FBS if both schools sign off on it? And if you’re Georgia, why wouldn’t you in Turman’s case?

The NCAA, for all its faults, has made advancements in recent years on legitimately helping its student-athletes. Sometimes it’s been at the barrel of a court case, but ultimately we have cost of attendance, more freedom for schools to pay for family travel, and an emphasis on time management.

The transfer issue should be next. The NCAA needs to take a hard look at its rules, and change them.

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