At the bottom of 10 demands from the National College Players Association, the voice for college athletes founded by former UCLA linebacker Ramogi Huma that is at a crescendo after nearly 20 years, are two that embrace a simple human concept: freedom.
They ask that colleges allow players to transfer from one university to another if they wish and do so without punishment.
Or in short — my words, not the NCPA’s — do away with their indentured servitude.
There is no milder manner in which to explain what 20-year-old Austin Kendall experienced Wednesday. Entering the week, he appeared to be a possible heir at Oklahoma after the Sooners’ latest Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Kyler Murray, announced he would enter the NFL draft. Then Jalen Hurts, who started two national championship games for Alabama, announced he was transferring to Oklahoma.
Having been shown such loyalty by Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley, Kendall decided he wanted to transfer to West Virginia — a team in the same conference, the Big 12. And with that, Kendall encountered his status: property of Oklahoma and the NCAA.
Oklahoma said he could go, but it wouldn’t allow him to be eligible to play next season.
The big story Wednesday was that Hurts, who lost his starting job at Alabama to Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban’s newest shiny thing, Tua Tagovailoa, was moving to Oklahoma. But the truly bigger story was how college athletics — Oklahoma, in this instance, and the NCAA in general — still treats college athletes in football and men’s basketball like anything but other students on campus — even someone such as Kendall, who graduated early and thus completed his obligation to the university.
“NCAA sports imposes second-class citizenship on its athletes,” Huma emailed me from his California executive director’s office.
Oklahoma relented only after public furor over the disingenuousness of Hurts strolling in one Oklahoma door while Kendall was unable to squeeze out of another. But if college players are students — as the NCAA long has marketed — it never should have come to that. All they should need to leave for another institution is good standing and a transcript to prove it.
Wednesday wasn’t, however, the first time this has happened. Maryland, for example, sought to impose the same penalty on Danny O’Brien, who had two years of eligibility left and was set to graduate after the 2011 season. Coach Randy Edsall told O’Brien he could go — as long as it wasn’t to another ACC school, a team on Maryland’s schedule or Vanderbilt, then being coached by former Maryland assistant James Franklin.
“In the discussion of college athlete rights, the focus has shifted over the last decade to primarily compensation for the athletes, without recognizing that the cartel deprives all college athletes of fundamental rights, like right to interstate travel, right of publicity, right of privacy, forced waiver of educational privacy rights under federal law, right to counsel, right to due process, right to private property and so on,” wrote Richard Johnson, who 10 years ago successfully sued the NCAA over its denial of college players’ ability to use lawyers, in an email to me Wednesday.
The reason colleges hold on to athletes — almost exclusively men’s basketball and football players — so tightly is because of the riches they generate for their athletic operations. They don’t want that low-cost, high-return labor to walk away on the same whims that lead coaches to change starting players or change jobs when more lucrative opportunities come along.
Colleges, of course, benefit from the stability created by keeping players on the campus they first chose. They have those players, for all intent and purpose, for the duration of their college careers, unless those athletes choose to leave.
To insure they don’t, the rules impose a price for transferring. That price is different for players in sports that don’t generate money. And that price doesn’t exist for college students who don’t play intercollegiate sports at all.
In other words, it is completely unfair.
And it makes clear that basketball and football players aren’t part of some nonprofit endeavor but are really professional athletes in need of organization, representation and equitable treatment within a multibillion-dollar enterprise.
“Are these students or employees?” Ohio University sports management professor B. David Ridpath asked rhetorically Thursday. Ridpath was so outraged by how Maryland handled O’Brien that he registered his concern at the time with then-system chancellor William E. Kirwan.
“That is the rub, and that is the decision that must be made,” Ridpath said. “If we want to restrict . . . then pay the athletes. If not, then they are theoretically students and should have all rights afforded to all students, including transfer freedom. It is even worse because [Kendall] is a graduate student. Never should someone who has graduated be restricted. I don’t care if you are playing the team the next year. Coaches do it all of the time. Ohio State hired two Michigan coaches, and that seems to be fine.”
When former Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, now with the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, transferred from another Big 12 school, Texas Tech, his coach, Kliff Kingsbury, waited so long to sign off on the transfer that it was too late for the Sooners to give Mayfield a scholarship. So he played as a walk-on.
“To help address this . . . the NCPA worked with lawyers to develop the College Athlete Protection Guarantee, a free contract that can specify that a college will grant an unrestricted release if the player decides to transfer,” Huma informed me. “High school recruits can use their leverage during the recruiting process to require a college to enter this agreement. Parents of high school recruits need to arm themselves with this contract to ensure their children are not left without critical protections.”
After Oklahoma backed down, Kendall arrived in Morgantown, W.Va., on Thursday. It was reported that he enrolled. He will be eligible to play for the Mountaineers next season, and Hurts will be allowed to play at Oklahoma.
But the college system needs to dump these restrictions. To riff on the refrain from an old Negro spiritual, “Let these players go.”
Or own up to what the system is and start treating players like the contracted professionals they have become.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.