The cries are way too dramatic. With the NCAA announcing that athletes in all sports can switch schools one time without having to sit out a year, the adjustment will be significant, and there will be a good number of unintended consequences to monitor. But this is no existential crisis, and to suggest otherwise reeks of paternalism.
There’s a misguided fear that 18- to 22-year-olds cannot be coached if they have permission to roam freely. It is an overreaction. This new policy is being treated as a grand shift in college athletics, but truth be told, it’s new only to five holdover sports: men’s and women’s basketball, football, men’s hockey and baseball. Coaches and players in every other program have functioned just fine within this dynamic for years.
Those are nonrevenue sports, so the scrutiny and sense of entitlement are different. But coaches are still demanding, and players welcome it. Programs haven’t been shut down because young adults are too mercurial to handle a looser situation. Mayhem doesn’t reign, and in some cases the coach-player relationships are healthier.
As long as the NCAA remains rigid and exploitative in its interpretation of amateurism, the organization doesn’t merit much trust. But this long-overdue policy adjustment, no matter how disruptive, proves the NCAA is still capable of making an honest assessment.
It’s easy to look at a transfer portal of about 1,400 (and counting) basketball players and call it a problem. But the volume of movement isn’t as important as the reasons behind it.
It illustrates mistrust. Do not characterize the players as frivolous and impatient. Do not reduce their parents and family members to being unrealistic or opportunistic. More than anything, they are railing against the hypocrisy of a system that rewards coaches for their aspiration while forcing athletes to learn about the value of a commitment they made in high school. The players aren’t the ones who set the standard. They’re looking for the best short-term deal because they are byproducts of what too many job-hopping coaches created.
What a crazy, but true, portrait of fairness. Everyone, coaches and players, now has an equal opportunity to be dissatisfied and nomadic.
It’s also hilarious that this attempt at stabilizing its rickety notions of amateurism will force schools to become even more like businesses. With players able to transfer more freely, coaches and athletic departments will have to work harder to concoct fuller and more rewarding experiences than the scholarship and playing-time opportunities they provide. They will have to focus on retention more than ever. The recruiting process will never end, and it’s not about telling players what they want to hear. The key is to keep convincing them that the school is what they need.
In a society obsessed with instant gratification, the challenges are aplenty. But it is possible to adapt, to keep building, to help players grow. For example, consider the parallel story of Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman this week. With the Razorbacks coming off an Elite Eight appearance in the coach’s second season, they signed Musselman to a new five-year, $20 million contract. The timing tells an interesting story.
Over six seasons at Nevada and Arkansas, Musselman has done what traditionalists and control freaks are screaming is impossible this week: sustain teams amid transfer mayhem. He rebuilt both programs using heavy doses of transfers. The former NBA coach long has considered the transfer portal to be college free agency. Sometimes he has recruited entire classes of transfers, developed their games during their sit-out years and watched them blossom into key contributors and all-conference players.
At Nevada, his coaching staff developed analytics to predict, quite accurately, how transfers would fare in the Mountain West Conference. Those numbers were part of their recruiting pitch. Musselman since has modified that for the SEC with similar success.
His style was once considered too unorthodox, if not crazy. Maybe it could work for a mid-major, but there’s no way he could maintain it in a power conference. Today, he’s a visionary.
Musselman can recruit at all levels, and even though he has had to coach around turnover and limited rosters (because of transfers sitting out), he has won at least 20 games every season and made two deep tournament runs. And Arkansas, as much as any program, is well equipped for the turbulence of the next few seasons.
Musselman is no longer an outlier. He’s a model. His transfer-heavy teams have had distinct identities. They have good chemistry. They play selfless basketball. As an old pro coach, he knows how to adjust to available talent instead of locking stubbornly into one style of play. I spent several days with his team at Nevada two years ago and came away amazed at the culture of a group of players outsiders would have considered castoffs.
College basketball programs would be lucky to follow Arkansas’s example. There’s no use fearing the inevitable. It is here. It has been here. And it doesn’t have to be ruinous.
The past three No. 1 picks in the NFL draft have been quarterbacks who thrived after transferring: Joe Burrow, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield. In two weeks, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, who started at Georgia, should be selected in the top 10. Because sports are played by human beings, values and traditions are left to be maintained and cast aside. For fans, it’s an incredibly difficult experience, but the options are to adapt or ignore. And the die-hards probably won’t look away so easily.
This uncomfortable version of fairness won’t ruin college sports. It may not enhance them, either. It just will be. For once, the players get the last word. Live with it.