Sports

Step-by-step, inch-by-inch ... how the NCAA finally started to rethink its rules

UNC’s Johnson: ‘I am really excited to put on these colors’

North Carolina's Cameron Johnson talks about transferring to the Tar Heels and what he can bring to the UNC basketball team during media day at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017.
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North Carolina's Cameron Johnson talks about transferring to the Tar Heels and what he can bring to the UNC basketball team during media day at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017.

The NCAA crept closer last week to treating football and basketball players like other college athletes and students. That is, like young adults able to make their own decisions.

The NCAA’s glacial pace in improving transfer rules, braving the real and imagined difficulties posed by increased player freedom of movement, actually brings to mind an old vaudeville routine. The sketch, called “Niagara Falls,” migrated to film and television, popularized by comedians Abbott and Costello, whose careers peaked in the decade following World War II.

In the comedy duo’s version, Costello is the unwitting foil as his unhappy companion talks of being provoked to take action. Set off by the words “Niagara Falls." the stranger abruptly lowers his voice, glowers, and intones: “Slowly I turned, step by step, step by step…” During the same era the Three Stooges added minor twists to the sketch that more aptly portray the NCAA’s ponderous consideration of changes that elevate athletes’ interests. “Slowly I turned,” Moe says to Curly, “and step by step, inch by inch…”

That apt description of the NCAA’s historically desultory approach was contradicted by its Division I Council, which finally cleaned up the rule regarding what’s called “notification of transfer.” The group also eliminated the “permission to contact” restriction, which was as paternalistic as it sounds. Both improvements go into effect in October. Major conferences can enact more restrictive standards if they choose.

The new setup strips coaches and administrators of the prerogative to dictate when and where players in the major revenue-producing sports may transfer. Potential school-switchers can make their own arrangements or put their names in a national database that gives interested coaches the go-ahead to get in touch, and off they go.

These adjustments are a significant advance from the arbitrary power previously wielded over college athletes. No longer can Kansas State coach Bill Snyder infamously refuse to release one of his football reserves to transfer to 35 specified schools as happened last year. Nor could Pittsburgh and former coach Gene Stallings exert similarly controlling authority trying to force graduate transfer Cam Johnson, now a North Carolina graduate student, to sit out a season if he wanted to go to Chapel Hill.

The broader transfer issue enthralls and alarms defenders of the status quo, who fear anarchy if constraints are loosened or, worse, discarded. Immediate eligibility for undergrads, mirroring graduate students, “would be the worst rule ever,” Baylor coach Scott Drew told ESPN last fall. Indirectly commenting on the integrity of his colleagues, Drew, located in Waco, Texas, added, “It would be the wild, wild west.”

Coaches readily cite ESPN figures on how many Division I players switch schools – more than 700 in 2015-16. The turnover is frequently attributed to an immediate-gratification culture among young people, even as coaches welcome grad transfers to plug holes in their rosters, break contracts, or seek better deals from their employers following standout seasons. NCAA critics, or simply those interested in fairness, see a rise in transfers as a sign more athletes want to manage their own destiny.

NCAA restrictions, and laments about players easily changing places of non-employment, bring to mind another authoritarian sports model that was shattered in the 1970s amid inevitable cries of impending calamity. Instead, competitive prosperity ensued.

Baseball’s reserve clause, assigning a player’s contract for life to a single franchise, was imposed in 1879 and lasted almost a century. Hall of Famer John Ward wrote in 1887 that limiting a player’s signing options, “has been used as a handle for the manipulation of a traffic in players, a sort of speculation in live stock, by which they are bought, sold, and transferred like so many sheep.”

The NCAA’s restrictive practices are less overt and usually justified on academic grounds, notably the requirement an undergraduate sit out a year upon transferring. But limiting player movement is also blatantly self-serving. Players leaving unexpectedly, particularly in a climate where the NBA one-and-done option is ever-present, is frequently decried as a disruptive influence. Players must be corralled, coaches argue, lest colleagues poach their squads like cattle rustlers.

When baseball’s reserve clause was dismantled, “the owners’ fear was that, in an era of free agency, every player would be a free agent every year,” explains John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball. “There would be a constant swirl and turn, and not only would salaries go through the roof but fan allegiances would be compromised.” Didn’t happen.

Thorn sees parallels between current NCAA practices and the unreconstructed major leagues. “Collegiate players are treated like professionals but they’re not professionals,” he observes. “I’m not sure the NCAA has found the proper balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of the institution or the rights of the conference.”

For decades that uncertainty fed gradualism in recalibrating the rights of athletes, who have no union to bargain on their collective behalf. The latest transfer adjustments, combined with decisions on issues such as enhanced costs of attendance and limits on practices, make it appear the NCAA and its major conferences are grudgingly, and belatedly, shifting to a less proscriptive path.

Yet the revamped emphasis is as much spurred by unfavorable legal entanglements and the weight of popular disapproval as by an internal awakening. Few disinterested parties can miss the clear inequities and contradictions in a system brimming with riches for the few while arguing for limits on the many.

But working from the inside out may no longer be enough, if it ever was.

Earlier this month, responding to the latest bribery scandal in men’s college basketball, the co-chairs of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics urged the NCAA to make immediate adjustments to combat financial opacity and the “inherent conflicts of interest” in a membership organization. To get there, they proposed freshening the NCAA’s primary governing boards with independent directors assuming majority status.

“This is a moment of opportunity to restore public faith in the NCAA’s ability to be an effective steward of big-money college sports,” Arne Duncan and Carol Cartwright wrote hopefully. “Business as usual just won’t cut it anymore.”

That last, hoary admonition may finally be getting through.

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