The NCAA Division I transfer waiver working group is considering a concept that would allow athletes in all sports to transfer once without sitting out a year of competition.
If adopted by the Division I council, the new waiver criteria would allow athletes in all sports to compete immediately if they are in good academic standing, not facing suspension at their original school. They would receive a release to transfer.
The concept comes after the NCAA saw numerous waiver requests from transferring athletes to gain immediate eligibility and amid scrutiny over the current process.
“The current system is unsustainable. Working group members believe it’s time to bring our transfer rules more in line with today’s college landscape,” said working group chair Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the Mid-American Conference. “This concept provides a uniform approach that is understandable, predictable and objective. Most importantly, it benefits students.”
To give a better idea of why this is being considered, when it could be enacted and how it would impact college football and basketball, we have answers to some of the most important questions, along with opinions from coaches, administrators and athletes.
What is the proposal?
As it stands, college football and basketball players are required to sit out one year after transferring to another program. Some conferences have different rules within that rule.
As the number of transfers continues to rise, so do the number of requests for waivers to gain immediate eligibility across the board in all conferences.
“More than a third of all college students transfer at least once, and the Division I rule prohibiting immediate competition for students who play [one of] five sports [football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, baseball and men’s ice hockey] hasn’t discouraged them from transferring,” Steinbrecher said. “This dynamic has strained the waiver process, which was designed to handle extenuating and extraordinary circumstances.”
Quarterbacks Justin Fields and Tate Martell caused some of the bigger uproar when both were granted waivers and eligible to play immediately, while other players requesting the same status were required to sit out a season.
The working group is considering a more uniform way to allow players an opportunity to transfer without penalty. The student-athlete would be able to transfer one time without penalty and would have immediate eligibility no matter the destination.
What criteria would need to be met to qualify for transfer with no penalty?
Under the proposal, the student-athlete transferring for the first time in his/her undergraduate career would need to receive a transfer release from the previous school, leave the previous school academically eligible, maintain academic progress at the new school and leave under no disciplinary suspension.
When would it go into effect?
The working group is seeking feedback from Division I members through student-athlete representatives, conference offices, impacted coaches’ associations and other collegiate athletic professional organizations. The group will take that feedback into the council’s April meetings and according to the NCAA release, the group’s goal is to have the new criteria approved for transfer in the 2020-21 academic year.
Does this limit the number of times a student-athlete can transfer?
No. A student-athlete would still be able to transfer as many times as they would like, but this rule would only allow them to gain immediate eligibility under the first transfer.
If a student-athlete has already transferred prior to this new rule, would they be able to gain immediate eligibility if they transfer again?
The working group believes athletes who have already transferred previously, or otherwise do not qualify for this new one-time waiver guideline, should still have the ability to go through the current waiver process to gain immediate eligibility. The group states the waiver process, however, should be limited to truly extenuating and unique circumstances, and would not be granted for anything other than a unique situation.
What coaches, players and administrators are saying
We talked to dozens of stakeholders across football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball to get their thoughts on the proposed rule, the challenges it would present and the opportunities it would provide.
Nick Saban, Alabama head coach
“I don’t know how you manage a roster when this goes into effect. I can’t manage our roster now. Last year, we had eight seniors on our team. We had seven guys go out for the draft and three graduate transfers or guys that ended up transferring. So instead of having 18 seniors, you’ve got eight. You really have a three-year program at a place like this. I’m not necessarily saying it’s going to hurt our program because we’ll do a hell of a job recruiting players leaving other places to come here. But is that good for college football?”
Gus Malzahn, Auburn head coach
“I see why some would justify it when you see coaches changing all the time, especially after signing day, but that’s part of what you’ve got to deal with. I don’t agree with it, but that’s where we are and where a lot of the argument comes from for having open transfers. We’ll have to also re-recruit our own players. There will be a lot of challenges, and coaches will have to rethink how they manage their roster.”
Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association
“We don’t want to lower graduation rates, we don’t want recruiting off other campuses. I don’t think I’m talking irrationally here, because history already tells us what’s going to happen. What would be the motivation for universities to recruit from high schools any more? You’re basically going to recruit off other campuses. Dependent upon where you are on that food chain, it’s going to affect how many high school athletes you would actually take. From a coaching perspective, many times it’s easier to take a proven player off another campus. I don’t think the fan bases are going to enjoy this, either.
“We already know the reality of it. The reason of the rule being put in place was a concern, rightfully so in my opinion, from an academic standpoint. Students were transferring all over the place because everyone was recruiting off other campuses. That is a concern based off graduation rates. Secondarily, then it becomes less about the academics and more about football opportunities and so on. That’s why the rule was put in place, to mitigate that. Our proposal, which was unanimously supported for the third straight year across all NCAA levels at our convention, we support the idea of if you’re transferring across or up, if you sit a year. It’s mandated. Most of those people need that time frame. And then when they graduate, which is the whole reason for this, they get the year back, so they have an extra year.”
Power 5 head coach
“Group of 5: It’s going to kill them. They’re going to be our G League. They’ll be our little amateur league where we’ll draw good players from. Every kid wants to play in the Power 5. I don’t care what you say, that’s what you want.”
Sonny Dykes, SMU coach
“The NCAA has to have a rule that’s consistent for all sports. I don’t know why the transfer rule in football is different than it is in lacrosse or women’s track and field. It all ought to be the same. It’s a common-sense approach in what they’re doing and considering.
“… I think young people have character and I don’t think some kid that says, ‘I’ve been the best player at SMU for two or three years, I want to go see if I can be the best player somewhere else,’ I just don’t think there are that many kids who think that way. … It might happen occasionally, and when it does, it’ll be painful, but at the same time, why wouldn’t a kid want to try to play at the best place he can play at? It comes down to the players. The mistake that we as coaches and the NCAA have made is we have somehow always thought that college football is about us, about the coaches and about the schools. It’s about the players. I’ve always believed that.
“What I worry about is the summer. I worry about some kid who has a little bit of a break and goes to visit his buddy that plays at School A and all of a sudden, ‘Hey, let me take you up to the office.’ And School A is like, ‘Hey, you ought to think about transferring up here. It’s July. We need a wide receiver.’ … If you’re at SMU and you have three kids who walk in and say they want to transfer, it can have a huge impact on your program. There has to be some kind of timing element involved. Leaving it open to the summer is really asking for problems. That’s the time when some school may be desperate because of what happened via injury, and desperate coaches are never a good thing. That leads to problems and violations and things that nobody wants to see happening.
The player perspective
2020 OL recruit Myles Hinton
“I believe it is a good idea to change the rule. All of us are in our teens and are expected to make a decision that will affect the rest of our lives and not mess up. This doesn’t reflect how I feel about my decision, but I know kids who are unhappy with where they’re at and I think it is unfair for them to be stuck there.”
Timothy Ford, father of Illinois TE Luke Ford
Luke Ford, who transferred to the Illini from Georgia. Luke left the Bulldogs to be closer to his home in Carterville, Illinois, in part to be closer to his ailing grandfather.
The NCAA denied Ford’s waiver request for immediate eligibility, so he sat out the 2019 season. Unfortunately for Ford, his grandfather passed away in February and was not able to see Luke play college football in person.
“Every student should be able to transfer, just like every violin scholarship student or academic scholarship is allowed to,” he said.
2020 RB recruit Chris Tyree
“I don’t see why it would be detrimental. There’s always people moving around when it comes to coaches and graduate assistants. People around the staff are moving all the time, so I feel like if we have another chance to find our home if we have problems with where we’re at, I don’t see a problem with that. I think it is fair.”
On if it will create a sense of free agency: “I could see that happening, but me personally I feel like you should take a lot of time for the past four years in high school to find the right place. That’s a really big decision to pick where you’re going to college, so I feel like you should be able to trust your first decision. I know there are situations where things go wrong where you can’t really control what happens, but I feel like you should take a lot of time and make sure that’s the right decision you want to make. And that’s the right school you want to go to.”
2021 QB J.J. McCarthy
“My opinion, I like that idea with a reasonable cause. If you’re just transferring just because you didn’t win the job, I believe you should sit out a year. But if you’re in Luke Ford’s position where you’re transferring back because your grandpa will never get to see you play in person unless you transfer home, I totally get that. I think that should be allowed.
“But there have been a lot of players in college that transferred because they weren’t in the right situation in the first place. Some of them have thrived, but I feel like some of it is about not going through everything they possibly could in recruiting in the first place. Whether they didn’t feel comfortable in the first place or just didn’t find the right school, there’s a lot of factors, but I think there should be certain causes that would allow them to play right away.
Conference commissioners and athletic directors
Kevin Warren, Big Ten commissioner
“We’re not saying we want to have people bouncing around — that’s not what we’re saying — but I think it’s fair that student-athletes have a one-time opportunity to do it. So if you went to a school, and the coach left, or it doesn’t fit like you thought it would during your recruiting visit, whatever the case may be, you should have an opportunity to transfer and be able to play. After that, I think it’s only fair to be required to use the other transfer rules as far as sitting out.
“Ultimately, this has to be the decision of the NCAA, but what was important for us in the Big Ten conference was to make it be known and to be clear that we strongly believe in what we’ve put forward in our proposal, that our student-athletes should have an opportunity for a one-time waiver, again making sure that all of the other requirements are in place.”
John Swofford, ACC commissioner
“After a lot of discussion around the table, our ADs and faculty reps came to a unanimous decision that they felt like considering the issues related to the exceptions around the transfer and seeming inconsistencies that have occurred, and coupled with the fact that four of our sports — five if you separate men’s and women’s basketball — have one set of rules and the other sports have another. This was part of the evolvement of modernizing the model we have and the right side of the issue that we should be on is giving more freedom to the athletes without just an open book that would give the one-time transfer to every student-athlete if they chose to do so.
Greg Sankey, SEC commissioner
What has to happen for this to change?: “It probably depends on who one asks in the national office of the NCAA. In October, there were several conferences on the phone that had submitted NCAA rules changes that ranged the spectrum of full transfer freedom and this one-time transfer exception to standardizing a full year of residence for every transfer and probably a lot in between and the Division I board said, ‘Look, there’s a lot going on, particularly with name, image and likeness, we’re not going to hit these issues this year.’
“Now we have an announcement, which is really a request for input on this waiver process that a couple of our colleague conferences have decided to put out press releases on their positions, during this time when a moratorium exists, lead us to talk about how this is deployed. I know there’s interest in having an open and honest dialogue about these transfer issues, which should be encouraging to everyone, but I also want to think about other elements attached.
“If we can’t fill up a football roster of 85 scholarships, and there are a lot of transfers and 10 scholarships go essentially unused, that’s not good for anyone.”
Bob Bowlsby, Big 12 commissioner
“Unfortunately, the two initiatives crossed in cyberspace. The group that’s trying to manage the waiver environment made some statements that they think there needs to be some dramatic changes in the waiver space and that came out at the same time when the Big Ten package came out.
“I know the discussion hasn’t been completed, and I don’t know when it will be completed, but it’s not as imminent as what some of the media coverage would lead you to believe.
“Everybody thinks they make a plausible case for a waiver, and when they lawyer up, they probably make more progress than they do if they don’t lawyer up. But I think the criticism has been that it’s been arbitrary and people who represent student-athletes transferring, they know what buzzwords to put into the appeal so they can be successful in their appeal.”
Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame athletic director
“We were at ACC meetings last week, and I advocated for it. There are all kinds of issues still to be resolved, but there’s a fundamental fairness in this that I think is important to honor. I’m always looking to find ways to normalize the experience of the student who is an athlete against that of the student who’s not an athlete. I think this is a good step in that direction.
“The flip side of a one-time transfer is the second transfer ought to be really difficult, only under extraordinary circumstances. The waiver window on that for me would be really, really small. It would be small and specific and we get out of this whole nonsense we have now with the waiver process.
“When you have the Big Ten and the ACC come out in favor of this conceptually, and I would guess you would see similar sentiments from other conferences, it tells you you’re going to get there, you just have to figure out exactly what the process looks like.”
Mike Aresco, AAC commissioner
“Our membership, we’re going to poll them. We’re in the process of doing that now and seeing whether their attitudes have changed, especially since this legislation has been fast-tracked. That came as a surprise to a lot of us. The Big Ten came out with their statement, then the ACC came out, then the next thing you know, it’s not going to be in the regular legislative process. They used some kind of loophole to fast-track it, so we’ve got to act quickly. A lot of people are saying it’s a fait accompli, it’s clear that it’s likely to pass. I don’t know, we’ll see. I think coaches will probably have issues with it, but I can also see the arguments for it and our membership probably will see those arguments, as well, so it’s going to be interesting to see where they come out. In terms of the larger issue, I think the waiver process sparked a lot of this.
Ross Bjork, Texas A&M athletic director
(Bjork is a member of the working group but was only speaking in his capacity as the Aggies’ AD.)
“I believe that we do have to look at the ripple effects of [Academic Progress Rate], tampering, all of those things have to be a part of it. It can’t be a standalone process, it has to be a part of an overall review of the academic piece, the initial signee piece, the tampering piece, that’s how I see it moving forward.
“The flip side of that is the reality of all of the other sports besides the five that really have lived in this world for some time and it seemed to work. Has it been perfect? No, but has it worked overall with those other sports? It really has. That’s the other part of it. Right now, this only impacts five sports.
“I think the waiver business really has just lost its way. I think it’s caused too much angst between universities, and it puts student-athletes in a bad position, coaches and athletic administrators and compliance people in tough positions. To me, we’ve been headed down this path and I’m glad we’re seeing some action.”
Joe Castiglione, Oklahoma athletic director
“I’ve had people from other universities — I won’t tell you which ones — we’ve had a student-athlete leave to go to that university, which was fine, they left in good standing academically. They wanted to have a chance to play more than perhaps they were getting here, we get that. They transferred to another school but they had to sit out. … People are calling, saying, ‘Well, could you write a letter to say that that student-athlete was prevented from something and that’s why they felt they had to leave?’ I was speechless. Basically asking for us to lie about the reason they left because it would help in their case to become immediately eligible. I know for a fact it’s happened in many cases.
“That one absolutely made me angry. I was just taken aback that somebody would actually ask us to do that.
“Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray both sat a year. I’m sure if you asked either one of them and their families, they would’ve preferred to be eligible to compete immediately. I get that. But that wasn’t part of the rules. We have people on any one of our rosters who transfer here knowing they have to sit a year in residence. In many cases, one could argue that the opportunity to grow in that year was really positive. I know in today’s world that doesn’t make sense for a lot of people — it’s gotta be now — I understand an argument for that, but those rules were in effect. Now we have all the different reasons — many which have been exaggerated — just to be able for some to be immediately eligible.”
Scott Drew, Baylor head coach
(Drew has four transfers in his starting lineup this season.)
“I think what’s going to happen is transfer rates are going to go through the roof. After one good year in a mid-major, you’re out. After one good year in a low-major, out. One [bad] year at a high-major, you’re out. Grass is always greener. It’s going to be very tough to manage your roster.”
Eric Musselman, Arkansas head coach
His initial reaction: “The transfer market continues to grow. It’s changed the complexion of all sports, not just basketball. Whatever the rule is, let’s come up with one and let’s keep it consistent and keep it that way for a while. The thing that’s been hard for the student-athlete, they all think they can get a waiver now. And that’s not the case. Everything should be about what’s good for the student-athlete.”
On tampering/player movement: “I think it’s just like the NBA. When you’re in the NBA, you understand the ramifications of tampering or talking to an agent as a third party. The repercussions are such that people don’t do it, for the most part. You just have to have rules in place. I look at the NBA and how free agency has changed. Player movement is part of our society in the NBA, AAU and in high school. From eighth grade until senior year of high school, what’s the average of how many AAU programs the top 200 guys in each class play on over that time frame? And the same thing with how many high schools.”
How mid-majors can benefit: “As you look at the transfer thing as a whole, there’s programs at all levels that recruit a guy that maybe isn’t good enough for that level. It’s probably good that he’s got some freedom and doesn’t have to sit out. Or if somebody envisioned his role being such and that’s not the case. At Nevada, we had Kendall Stephens, Hallice Cooke, the Martin twins, [transferring down] was a great thing for their career.”
High-major head coach
On tampering: “It’s very hard to police and prove. All of us coaches talk to the same AAU coaches, the same high school coaches. When people are tampering, they’re not calling the recruit or his parents. Normally, an AAU coach will say, ‘I’ve got three kids that are transferring. Are you interested?’ You can say that you can’t talk to them until they transfer. But when the kid transfers, he already has his school list. Nobody transfers until they know where they’re going.”
On roster management: “The reality is if you have 13 kids, you can play only five at a time. You have eight that are unhappy. In today’s society, the way to happiness is the grass is always greener on the other side. And the guys recruiting him are saying, ‘you can be a starter’ and this and this. It’s always best-case scenario. Ninety-nine percent of players aren’t going to the NBA. What’s better to teach them? That you have to work hard and move up the ladder, or that you can go somewhere and leave if it’s not perfect.”
Andy Toole, Robert Morris head coach
“It’s time to do it. We can stop talking about it and debating the merits of it. I found it humorous hearing the outcry from high-major coaches about guys worrying about their roster — but they weren’t worried when they were poaching players from mid- and low-major schools. It will create such flux in the springtime, but it will settle itself out. There’s going be some 7th-8th-9th guy leaving [high-majors], he wants to have more of an impact on winning. Kids go to the highest level [out of high school] because it’s the sexy thing to do, but that sex appeal wears off and they want to win and impact their team. I’m glad they’re taking the waivers away, because there was no rhyme or reason to giving them out. If you want to transfer, go transfer.”
Martin Ingelsby, Delaware head coach
(Ingelsby lost his best player to transfer after each of the past two seasons, including Ithiel Horton leaving June 27 and committing to Pittsburgh not long after.)
“I would be naive to think this new rule wouldn’t have a significant impact on schools at this level. Would we adjust? Yes. But my fear is the negatives will greatly outweigh the positives. We now become the vetting process for the high-major schools. You’ve already seen a shift in how some schools are recruiting and it will only get worse if you can pluck a guy in the spring or summer to fill a hole in your roster.”
Mid-major assistant coach
“It’s free agency with no salary cap. Kids transferring up are way better than kids transferring down. It’s a rich-get-richer type of thing. Nobody wants to stand up for the rules. We’re always trying to find ways to circumvent rules. At the top, nobody wants to look like they’re anti-player. But there has to be a way to make it fair. It’s not the wild west out here. It’s not a free-for-all. It’s not professional sports.”
Mid-major assistant coach
“Pretty soon we’ll have midseason trades. As long as the trade deadline is before the start of conference play, I’m all for it. I hope you can sense my sarcasm. I can’t wait to see another mid-major star averaging 15-plus a game get picked away by high-majors to be a role player averaging single-digits.”
“The rules make it so you have to recruit a new team every year. There is no more, ‘This guy could be a star in two years.’ There’s no time for potential. You have to sign a couple of good high school kids in the fall and then refresh the transfer portal every hour on the hour.”
Statement from Dawn Staley, South Carolina coach
“Before I was a coach, I was a student-athlete — some of the best years of my life were spent as a college basketball player. The goal of the NCAA should be to make that true for every single student that chooses to compete at any level of collegiate athletics. While some of the potential unintended consequences of these changes give me pause — specifically shifting our sport to a never-ending cycle of recruiting and turning smaller programs into poaching grounds for larger ones — I believe that they will ultimately enhance the experience for our young women, and that, after all, is really why we are here.”
Kelly Graves, Oregon coach
“I feel any student-athlete, regardless of sport. should be able to transfer one time without penalty. It’s done in most sports. I’m not sure the numbers would say the transfer penalty is even a deterrent. There are just a million different reasons why a person should be able to transfer. I don’t like how the NCAA seems to arbitrarily rule on what reason is valid and what reason isn’t. Either you don’t let anybody transfer without penalty, or you let them all.
“If they transfer a second time, maybe then you impose a penalty — sitting a year out. But one time is fine with me. I think there should be penalties if you find out that there is recruitment going on when players are already in college, but I don’t see that’s going to be any more of an issue than it is already. And it doesn’t seem like the other sports that have transfers without penalties have chaos, any more than there is in basketball or football.”
Muffet McGraw, Notre Dame coach
“What we’re saying is with this is, ‘That’s the way society is, let’s let them do what they want.’ The really scary part is, I feel like you’re going to be in the handshake line after a game with people saying, ‘Hey, you didn’t play much today, why don’t you come over here?’
“I like the way it is now, so I think it would be a terrible thing to do.”
Jeff Borzello, Heather Dinich, Chris Low, Adam Rittenberg, Tom VanHaaren and Mechelle Voepel contributed reporting.