Transfers seem straightforward. A player leaves one school and attends another, and has to sit out one year before he can play for his new team. Simple, right? Wrong: Even that seemingly structured rule is beset by a score of academic timeline requirements and bureaucratic processes.
A player must receive a written permission-to-contact letter from his current coach. He must have spent a full year in "academic residence" -- i.e., attending classes as a full-time, 12-credit-hours-or-insert-your-school's-equivalency student -- before he is eligible to get back on the court at his new school. There are "4-4" transfers and "2-4" transfers and different rules therein; there are issues involving full, partial, or non-qualifying academic status; and there are waivers and appeals you can make based on specific circumstances that can change the preexisting requirements, just like that.
How dizzying is this stuff? Here's the NCAA's brochure [PDF] for student-athletes interested in learning more about the transfer process. Ostensibly, this document was created to make the rules easy to understand and apply. It is filled with handy little case studies; it even has a glossary of important terms. And if you can read past the third page without help from prescription ADHD medication, well, I'd love to shake your hand. This stuff is brutal.
Which brings us to today's latest transfer news, reported by ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman:
Former Louisville forward Rakeem Buckles, who sat out last season at Florida International, will not be allowed to follow Richard Pitino to Minnesota, multiple sources told ESPN.
Buckles spent three seasons at Louisville and suffered two major knee injuries. He left the Cardinals and sat out last season at FIU, but decided to transfer to Minnesota and apply for a waiver to play immediately because Florida International was hit with a postseason ban by the NCAA for academic issues dating to the Isiah Thomas regime.
As Jeff writes, the surprise here stems from the fact that a player wouldn't be allowed to transfer away from a school that is currently not barred from the NCAA tournament for Academic Progress Rate violations. We've seen a handful of recent players in similar situations move to new schools and be eligible right away (see: Huskies, UConn). One of them is already working out in Minneapolis: Current Gophers guard Malik Smith, also formerly of FIU, transferred to Minnesota and was granted a waiver by the NCAA this summer. He'll play this season, but Buckles won't. Huh?
That's hardly the only confusing recent transfer news. Last week, Kerwin Okoro, a player transferring from Iowa State to Rutgers, was denied a hardship waiver by the NCAA. Okoro appealed to play immediately, as many players in recent seasons have, under the medical or family hardship "legislative relief" exemption (see what I mean?) after losing his New York City-based father and brother in the matter of two months last winter. But Okoro's appeal was denied, which raised red flags out in Rutgers, where the Star-Ledger has tried to divine why so many former Scarlet Knights were granted post-Mike Rice appeals this spring while Okoro, who is entering the program recovering from family tragedy, was not. The key quote from an NCAA spokesman:
"It’s not a formula. It’s not a math problem," NCAA spokesman Christopher Radford said. "The guidelines evolve and we see different circumstances and scenarios, and the guidelines evolve with that to make the process better and more efficient."
This comes amid the Star-Ledger's attempt to explain the transfer hardship/relief/whatever appeals process, and the various NCAA subcommittees each case passes through on each various appeal attempt. It all ends at the desk of the Legislative Council Subcommittee, which "may not even be burdened by the guidelines it has set for the NCAA staff."
"The subcommittee essentially can make whatever decision they think is the appropriate decision as a representative of the membership," Brooks said.
It would seem that Okoro is a textbook case, a player who left New York to play in the Midwest but felt compelled to return when his family suffered not one but two deaths in a brutally short period of time. We've seen plenty of relief appeals granted for far less in recent seasons, and while that may still happen in Okoro's case, it begs the question: What is the difference here? Where are the guidelines? How big is the box? Is it even a box in the first place?
The same goes for Buckles. This is not his first transfer, which changes things, because the NCAA has been concern-trolling about the purportedly destructive nature of player nomadism for years now. By attempting to transfer a second time after just one year at his previous school, Buckles faces a higher burden of academic proof. But even so, the circumstances of the case seem like a no-brainer: A player is leaving a school that is banned from the NCAA tournament and that now no longer even has a scholarship available for him to return to play one last year for his former coach at that coach's new school. And not only was his hope to play right away at Minnesota dashed, he was told he couldn't transfer at all. Maybe that aligns with the NCAA's rules on academic status for transfers. It's hard to know, because the player's privacy is worth protecting. But even if we're talking rules and not "guidelines" … why? Because that would be bad for Buckles? Even though he clearly disagrees? I know, I know, the NCAA is our last societal bastion of early-20th century class patriarchy. But really?
Simplify the transfer rules. Simplify the appeals guidelines. Simplify the rules. This was among NCAA president Mark Emmert's primary goals when he took on the job of representing the NCAA membership, and he has managed to streamline other areas of the rulebook. There are now more straightforward (and strict) punishments for violations, less confusion about texting recruits, no penalties for eating cream cheese, etc. etc. But the transfer rules remain.
There is some movement on this front: Last November, the Division I Legislative Council’s Subcommittee for Legislative Relief (no joke, that's what it's actually called)* changed the guidelines for hardship waiver requests in an effort to make application thereof more consistent. Clearly, that hasn't worked out too well, but it's something -- and indicative of a larger effort to make transfers less of a thorny mess.
In a perfect world, players would have as much personal agency as the men paid handsomely for marshaling their talents. In a perfect world, the NCAA wouldn't need to create 20-page pamphlets to educate students on transfer rules, because those rules would be so simple as to be intuitive. In a perfect world, the NCAA wouldn't feel the need to tell 22-year-old men and women it knows what's better for their academic futures than they do.
We do not live in a perfect world, unfortunately, and some of the above will never happen, at least not as long as the NCAA is still kicking. But the current system is at best poorly misunderstood and at worst irreconcilably broken. Either way, it's time to start over.
*Oh, and while we're at it, can you guys stop naming things the Division I Legislative Council’s Subcommittee for Legislative Relief? Call it the Appeals Group. Rebrand. Football Group. Basketball Group. Rules Group. Investigations Group. Enforcement Group. Whatever.
Rebrand, guys. Communicate simply, clearly, declaratively. It really doesn't have to be this hard.