The modest tempest precipitated by Cameron Johnson switching schools came and went like a fleeting thunderstorm on a June night. Once the disturbance blew past, restrictions were waived to allow the graduate transfer to play immediately for the North Carolina basketball program, and the rest of us more or less pulled up the covers and went back to sleep, our perceptions of the familiarly unfair NCAA landscape largely unchanged.
The issue we missed wasn’t the mean-spirited spectacle of University of Pittsburgh administrators and coach Kevin Stallings trying to control where Johnson, having earned his degree, went to further his educational and basketball careers. Nor was the most irksome aspect of the story the Pitt-led attempt to make Johnson pay for his choice by sacrificing his ability to play immediately as a grad transfer, a collegiate version of free agency increasingly disfavored within NCAA circles.
Most telling, and least mentioned, Johnson’s case illuminated the unchallenged notion, applicable to every Division I participant in baseball, basketball, football or men’s ice hockey, that it’s fair and proper to order a student on athletic scholarship to cease official competition for a year if they change schools. Unfortunately, most of us accept this stricture as a given, par for the course.
Johnson, a 6-8 wing, graduated in good standing from the ungrateful University of Pittsburgh, where his father, Gilbert, played basketball for the Panthers from 1988 through 1990. A high school Honor Society member, the younger Johnson ably personified a student-athlete, having finished his undergraduate studies in three years, two as an Academic All-ACC honoree. (He red-shirted one year due to a shoulder injury.) Exercising a privilege apparently ripe for the NCAA chopping block, with two years of eligibility remaining and an opportunity to play right away, he targeted Chapel Hill, where last season he blistered the national champs with 6-of-9 shooting on 3-point shots. On the year, Johnson was the most accurate Panthers regular on 3-pointers (.415) and free throws (.811).
But here’s where the Pitt crew, acting with breathtaking lack of generosity, exploited the rules to limit where Johnson could and could not transfer. By arbitrary edict, UNC and other ACC destinations were verboten. Never mind that grad transfers moved within the ACC just recently; sharpshooting Adam Smith’s jump from Virginia Tech to Georgia Tech for the 2015-16 season comes to mind.
This heavy-handedness was nothing new for Stallings, a serial throttler of player opportunity. At Vanderbilt he did much the same to Shelton Jeter when the forward wanted to transfer to Pitt, forcing a detour to a Florida junior college for the 2014 season. Then Stallings bailed on the Commodores and landed last year at Pittsburgh – where he again got to coach Jeter.
Stallings is hardly alone in restricting a transfer’s options. Earlier this month Kansas State football’s Bill Snyder relented on a similar maneuver. David Cutcliffe did it with grad transfer Thomas Sirk, now at East Carolina, citing the need to protect Duke program secrets. When Vanderbilt replaced Stallings with Bryce Drew in 2016-17, David Skara sought to follow his coach from Valparaiso. But Valpo specifically denied Skara the chance to rejoin Drew, who recruited and then left him, or any Horizon League school. The forward from Croatia landed at Clemson, a recent haven for transfers. As an undergraduate changing schools Skara had to accept being placed in competitive limbo last season before becoming eligible in 2017-18.
That’s a ridiculous rule, especially in a case where a coach leaves.
The premise that unpaid transfers should sit out a competitive season to protect them from themselves, thereby limiting their freedom compared to other students, is akin to the noncompete clauses proliferating in the private business world, says Richard Southall, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina and director of the College Sports Research Institute. Those limitations “are common in employment settings, but it makes absolutely no sense if it’s an educational endeavor. So it’s another indication that this has nothing to do with education, and it’s all about generating revenue in college sports.”
Controlling the labor market is an age-old way to control costs, notes Bob Orr, the former Associate Justice of the N.C. Supreme Court now in private practice. “My concern is that the system is primarily geared to benefit the schools, the athletic industry and the NCAA and there are minimal, if any, rights that are afforded to college athletes,” insists Orr, on a self-described “anti-NCAA, pro-reform jag” since 2010. “They are probably in many ways as in-jeopardy a collective group that you can find, and that sort of flies in the face of conventional wisdom about the privileged college athletes.”
In fact, transfer restrictions trace at least in part to coaches not trusting colleagues to refrain from poaching their rosters. In entirely characteristic fashion, the NCAA’s preferred avenue for addressing this concern, and the influence of switching schools on academic performance, is to constrict athletes’ prerogatives. So, while regular students move without penalty, and usually survive to lead full lives, the organization that touts its dedication to the welfare of “student-athletes” restricts their choices.
Many reasons are advanced for suspending athletic competition for a year if an athlete transfers. Probably the most common was shared in an e-mail from Michelle Brutlag Hosick, an associate director of public and media relations for the NCAA. “… requiring college athletes to sit out competition for a year after transferring encourages them to make decisions motivated by academics as well as athletics,” Hosick explains. “Most student-athletes who are not eligible to compete immediately benefit from a year to adjust to their new school and focus on classes. Transferring schools has a profound impact on the academic achievement of all students, not just college athletes.”
Yet taking competition away for a year could be as disorienting as it is helpful for athletes in a strange setting. And, if time to adjust to a new school and scholastic challenge is so important, surely the NCAA would ban freshmen from varsity competition.
There’s certainly a disruptive danger in the large waves of transfers now churning through Division I basketball and bowl division football. Still, other than sympathy for lower-level D1 programs losing top talents, there were few expressions of concern when a pair of grad transfers manned Louisville’s starting backcourt in 2016. Last year it was Andrew White III and John Gillon at Syracuse.
This coming season, in a delectable twist, Pitt added Monty Boykins, a graduate transfer from Lafayette – without incident or apparent impediment. N.C. State signed grad transfers Al Freeman (Baylor) and Sam Hunt (N.C. A&T). C.J. Bryce, a rising junior, will redshirt for a year so he can rejoin Kevin Keatts, his coach from UNC Wilmington.
If more players could shift schools without being involuntarily sidelined, the loosened yoke would doubtless chafe coaches and spark a few adolescents to lose their way. But the destabilizing effects could be limited by regulating schools, not players, capping the number of transfers a program could accept in one season or over a four-year period.
“If you’re going to keep up the pretense that what we’re running here is fundamentally an academic enterprise, then give (athletes) the rights that all students have,” argues Jay Smith, a UNC history professor. With that attitude, no wonder Smith’s class, “Big-Time College Sports and the Rights of Athletes, 1956-Present,” was mysteriously banished from the 2017 fall curriculum at Chapel Hill.