On Wednesday of this soul-crushingly slow and college football-dominated week, your humble author officially decided to give up on untangling the NCAA's rules -- let alone its various hardship waiver guidelines and decisions -- regarding transfers. The impetus for this (jokingly exaggerated) came from a pair of recent transfer appeals cases:
1. The NCAA failed to grant Rutgers transfer Kerwin Okoro a legislative relief waiver allowing him to play right away at his new school, Rutgers, despite appearing to fit the textbook application of such a waiver. Okoro's father and brother passed away last winter, spurring his move from Iowa State to Rutgers.
2. More recently, the NCAA decided that Rakeem Buckles, a three-year Louisville forward who transferred to Florida International last season, could forget about playing right away at Minnesota. In fact, he could forget about playing at all. Instead, Buckles would not be allowed to transfer to Minnesota, period, and instead would have to stay at a school that a) his own coach (Richard Pitino, new Minnesota head man) also just left, b) does not have a scholarship for him to return to, and c) is not eligible for the NCAA tournament in 2013-14, thanks to NCAA Academic Progress Rate penalties.
The NCAA is no fan of players-as-nomads, and as such becomes much more circumspect when a player is seeking to transfer for a third or fourth time in his career. The Eligibility Center is surely even less enthusiastic about players who leave their second destination so quickly; Buckles spent his customary transfer season on the sidelines and never played for FIU. Even if those factors aren't in play, there are myriad academic hurdles the player must leap. The Buckles decision was confusing, given how little fuss has attended players who have sought to leave schools ineligible for the NCAA tournament, but with a second move in the offing, it was fair to wonder whether the NCAA had some extenuating academic reason for denying Buckles a scholarship and a shot to play in the tournament.
As he told ESPN's Jeff Goodman, Buckles' old coach (and the father of his new one) Rick Pitino was just as confused as the rest of us:
"I'm just blown away by it. It makes no sense. It's amazing the NCAA can do this," Pitino told ESPN.com. "He's a model student-athlete who had a 3.2 GPA when he left Louisville. He just wants a chance to play in another NCAA tournament."
"[Buckles] had no idea that the program wouldn't be able to play in the NCAA tournament when he transferred to FIU," Rick Pitino said. "This is a good kid who has dealt with plenty of adversity over his career. It's completely unfair."
That's all well and good, and I'm likely to agree. Within the NCAA's current transfer regulations -- which basically just make your eyes crust over when you try to read them; I don't recommend it -- there doesn't seem to be an obvious impetus for completely denying Buckles' right to change schools, let alone play right away. All recent precedent appears to be in his favor.
But the most important part of Pitino's quote, and one he surely included intentionally, is Buckles' GPA status when he left Louisville. That goes a decent way toward answering whether there is an academic reason for the NCAA's restrictive decision. Barring a nightmare year of classes at FIU, it doesn't seem that way.
What's going on here? What besides academics could make the NCAA respond to a transfer request with a flat-out "no?"
It won't say, of course, nor should it. But let's play pretend for a second. You are the NCAA. You are an organization that is openly concerned about the transfer trend in college basketball. You think transfers are harmful to the well-being and long-term futures of student-athletes in the first place, and you may be right! And now they're happening more than ever. (Ignore for a moment that this is also true of coaches, who get paid lots of money, because the NCAA membership ignores it, too.) Are you going to be particularly excited by the idea of a player who followed his old assistant coach from Louisville to Florida International, and now wants to follow him to Minnesota -- and play right away? No, you are not. You are instead going to be worried about the appearance of mercenarism, about a player moving twice in two years to follow a first-year coach twice over, about what. You are worried about how it looks, about the message it sends coaches scouring every possible shortcut through your legendary thicket of rules.
At least, were I disposed to think about these things this way, that's how I would think. It's one possible explanation, anyway. I'd love to hear another.