Luke DeCock

Giving athletes more freedom to transfer is the right thing for the NCAA to do. Or maybe just pay them.

Duke guard Grayson Allen (3) challenges Pittsburgh guard Cameron Johnson (23). Duke beat Pittsburgh 72-64 at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 4, 2017. Johnson has transferred to UNC.
Duke guard Grayson Allen (3) challenges Pittsburgh guard Cameron Johnson (23). Duke beat Pittsburgh 72-64 at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 4, 2017. Johnson has transferred to UNC. cliddy@newsobserver.com

What if college athletes had the same freedom of movement as their coaches? Or the administrators whose salaries keep rising? Or a math major who wants to be closer to home? Or an English major who decides she’d rather study engineering somewhere else?

The NCAA has always done everything in its power to keep athletes from transferring from school to school, making them sit out a year, taking away eligibility, anything to keep athletes where they started.

And now that all may be changing.

An NCAA working group is apparently considering a proposal that would let athletes transfer at will, as long as they met certain GPA targets and were on course to graduate. In other words: give athletes the same right to change schools every other student has.

It’s a radical proposal because the entire athletic-industrial complex is predicated on the unpaid labor of college athletes, and creating more freedom of movement would continue the trend of empowering athletes in a way that will make coaches and administrators very uncomfortable. Even under the current system, some of the more reactionary schools and programs often try to stand in the way of a player transferring, only to be shouted down, almost always, and forced to wilt under a barrage of public criticism – as Pittsburgh eventually was with Cameron Johnson, a graduate transfer who had more than held up his end of the bargain with the school and wanted to finish his career at North Carolina.

But this is the way things are heading: As players become more aware of the inequity of the system, that they’re getting a scholarship while everyone else dips into a billion-dollar trough filled by their work, they’re going to find more ways to assert themselves. And schools will try to find ways to meet them halfway, to preempt greater athlete-instigated change. Loosening restrictions on transfers, like cost of attendance stipends, is an easy way to treat players more equitably.

Still, it’s jarring to fans, who have been raised on the idea that college athletes represent their school. That’s why they put so much effort, so much emotion into cheering for the players who wear those colors. That’s why there’s a visceral negative reaction to the idea of players getting paid, because it tarnishes the perceived wholesomeness of the endeavor. It’s anachronistic in today’s world, but they got used to players turning pro, and they’ll get used to this.

It’s easy to understand why most coaches hate the idea. They put a tremendous amount of effort into recruiting players, developing them, working with them, hoping to benefit often two or three years down the line. In an open-transfer situation, a player could spend two years getting ready to play, only to do it somewhere else. The current system infuriates coaches enough. Imagine if players were even more likely to move? Maybe they won’t be: There’s so much movement in the system already, this may just make it easier on those who would have transferred anyway.

Coaches will adjust. Perhaps recruiting pitches will become more realistic, more honest about a player’s role and how he or she fits into the team. Fans will adjust, just as they have with players turning pro. The stadiums will still be full on Sundays, the bright lights on in March, even if the names on the jerseys change more often than they once did.

Then again, there’s an easy way to convince athletes to stay where they are: Treat them like professors. Or athletic directors. Or anyone else who contributes to the financial well-being of the university. Give them a contract, and pay them.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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