Friday, September 20, 2013

Thoughts on the Great Transfer Debate

Alas, it is still the offseason for college basketball. That means people are talking about things like transfer rules, which are in the headlines because Coach K staked out a public opinion
on the transfer rules and their exceptions:
"There should be no exceptions," Krzyzewski told "Everybody should have to sit out, that includes a fifth-year player, just to make it equal. I think it's a farce, really." 
"Giving certain kids the right to play and others not the right to play, it should be done the same," he said. "If they want to let everybody play right away, then let everybody play right away. Everybody should be treated the same. I don't understand why there are exceptions to this rule."
Gary Parrish agrees with Coach K that everyone should be treated the same, but he takes a hard line in favor of everybody playing right away. His arguments proceeds in a negative fashion, by knocking down what he perceives to be the best argument in favor of the forced redshirt year: "The one I hear most often is that it would create 'free agency' in college athletics."

First, Parrish expresses doubts that free transfers would actually create free agency. He makes a good point that transferring colleges is a big pain in the ass, and few people will do it lightly. I agree with him that unfettered, chaotic free agency is unlikely to result from unrestricted transfers. It will affect only the very best players, really.

Second, Parrish plays down the "rich get richer" argument against unrestricted transfers. This is the objection that low and mid-major teams will see their best players get recruited away from them by the high majors. Parrish agrees that this will happen, although perhaps not as often as some think. He just doesn't care, for reasons I'll quote in full:
The scenario most envision is a scenario where high-majors would essentially recruit from mid-majors and low-majors, just pluck the best of the best each and every year. In fairness, I agree, that would probably happen. But guess what? It already happens! And, even if it happened at an accellerated [sic] rate, why is that necessarily a bad thing?
Are you about protecting schools or creating opportunities for young people? 
I'm about creating opportunities for young people.
So, for the sake of the conversation, let's say there's a kid who is just an OK prospect out of high school and can only muster an offer from Stony Brook. This is a kid who forever dreamed of playing at a high-major, and he thinks he's good enough to play at a high-major. But, for whatever reason, he hasn't yet been able to convince a high-major coach of that by the time he graduates high school. 
Consequently, the kid signs with Stony Brook. 
Then he grows four inches and develops a jumpshot. 
Then he's a legitimate All-American candidate after two years. 
What would be so bad about that kid at that point accepting an offer to transfer to Ohio State or North Carolina or Kansas to complete his eligibility? What would be so bad about that kid at that point, after two years of hard work and development, taking advantage of an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream? 
Why would you be against that?
These are good points, as far as they go. But it seems to me that Parrish is ignoring the elephant in the room: corruption. It's not free agency per se that is bad—after all, high school students are free agents—it's the particular incentives that are associated with inter-collegiate recruiting that are troubling.

Think about that Stony Brook All-American candidate, and the incentives created by that situation. If he's already an All-American, that means he's either going pro after his sophomore or junior year. So he's either transferring or going pro.

If he transfers, he knows he's one-and-done at his new school, so he has very little to lose by playing fast and loose with the rules and getting some while the getting is good. This is all similar to the situation with "one-and-done" high school seniors now, but I assume no one associated with college basketball is looking to expand that sordidness.

Of course, most recruitments will be clean. But with the amount of money at stake, and the egos involved, there will be also be many dirty recruitments.

Fine, you might say: so what?

Here's what. College sports are weird. And I don't think we have a great understanding of what makes them special. So we should take care when we change the things that make college sports unique.

The more corrupt college basketball becomes, and the more like a pro league it become, the less interesting it is for most of the fans. Don't get me wrong—this isn't about idyllic principles of "amateurism." It's about at least the illusion of a level playing field, which is an absolute, fundamental prerequisite to interesting sporting events. This is also why pay-for-play is dangerous. If people come to believe that the big, rich programs can essentially buy players, college basketball becomes a farce like major league baseball, but only worse—because there's no draft to get things started quasi-fairly and there's even more fundamental inequality of resources.

Transfer restrictions and enforced amateurism are, I think, efforts by the NCAA to keep college basketball and football special, because that ineffable specialness is why people care (and how everyone makes money). If college sports become just a second-rate semi-pro league, there's a chance interest will wane, and profits will fall. And when that happens, eventually the opportunities for young people diminish as well. Who wants that?

By this way, this explains why transfer restrictions exist only in basketball and football—because those are the only wildly popular college sports, and they are the only sports with truly national recruiting. In every other sport, the student-athletes really are students first, so transferring will always be primarily an academic and social consideration rather than a sporting one (just as it is for most football and basketball players). So nothing is gained by the forced redshirt.

Of course, I could be wrong. In fact, I probably am! It could well be that transfers (and pay-for-play) won't change things enough to affect what's special about big-time college sports. And even if does destroy what's special, it could be worth it just because it will increase the student-athletes' freedom of choice, which may just be a paramount consideration. But I am very certain that this is the question we should actually be thinking about because it is the actual reason that these rules exist. We certainly shouldn't make these kinds of changes without at least acknowledging and confronting the real risks involved.


  1. I go back and forth on pay for play and the transfer rules. I also just don't know what is right.

    I think Coach K is obviously wrong that there should be no exceptions. I can't think of many rules in the history of Mankind that didn't have some reasonable exceptions. NCAA rules are largely stupid and unfair, and I don't see why there shouldn't be all kinds of exceptions. Fairness should prevail. Who determines that fairness- the NCAA, so maybe the nuts are running the asylum.

    I am finding myself falling on the sides of the players more and more as time goes on. College football and basketball have been a free minor league system for decades for the NBA and NFL. The only difference over the last 20 years is that sports entertainment has exploded in popularity and monetizing that popularity. For the best players this doesn't matter as they will get million dollar contracts in their professional careers, so they will get theirs. NBA/NFL owners/players/coaches/staffs are all getting paid. In college though, most players won't make much if any money from their efforts other than their scholarships. That is no small sum in today's world of rising tuition, but it just doesn't seem quite fair. As college sports revenue has risen, coaches pay has jumped astronomically. ADs, assistants, and it seems everyone else make more money now. Some of that money does get put back into the program in the way of better student athlete perks like better facilities, medical care, etc.

    It just doesn't seem like the massive increase in revenue has been shared appropriately with the people who do the most to earn it for their schools, the students. I heard Barry Alvarez say the other day stipends of $2000 a year would be difficult, because with title IX and other issues it would be hard to do without paying everyone. With 800 student athletes that comes out to 1.6 million per year. Not a small sum, but the average football head coach salary is now 1.64 million/yr. Is that really reasonable? Head coaches salaries have increased 70% since just 2006. I know tuition is going up, but not by 70% since 2006. If Nick Saban gave up 1/3 of his 5.5 million per year salary he could pay for every student athlete to have a $2000 stipend, and still have money to spare. Coach salary info is from this article from last year

    I don't really know what would be the best way to share money with the players, I just don't think it's fair that everyone involved with college football and basketball is getting richer and the kids are getting the same deal they have got for decades.

    1. Well put. I agree that if you are going to have restrictions you need to have exceptions. And I also agree that it is a sense of unfairness that is driving the outrage. But I think we have to admit that the unfairness is a pretty small problem. Only the revenue sports -- and really only basketball and football -- produce outsize profits that make the players seem unfairly exploited. To some extent those outsize profits go to fund the other non-revenue sports, so if you make things "fairer" for the football players, you have to concede that the the other non-football players are going to get a worse deal. Maybe that's "fairer," but it's not necessarily better.

      The fairest thing would be if college football and college basketball became more like college hockey. In college hockey, the best players of college age do not play college hockey (with rare exceptions). That's because they've got better options. They can get drafted right out of (or even in) high school, and the best just go straight to the NHL. Others can play in the junior leagues in Canada (which actually offer scholarships to Canadian university for players who don't make the pros). If US or Canadian college hockey is the best fit, they can do that. So college-aged hockey players have a real choice, and it's very hard to say that college hockey exploits them unfairly.

      This choice limits the talent level in college hockey, of course, which limits the popular appeal, which limits the potential profits.

      Frankly, a lot of college basketball is already like this. With 350 D-1 teams, there are hundreds of players getting scholarships to play basketball who are getting great deals. And the same is true for all football programs outside the "bowl subdivision" and even many within it. The number of student athletes who could get a better deal for their labor -- that is, the ones who could go play their sport and get something more valuable than a college scholarship and everything else that comes with it (e.g., instruction, training, room & board, etc.) -- is miniscule.

      But maybe things could be different if there were viable alternatives -- analogs to the Canadian junior leagues where college-aged basketball and football players could go and earn a decent living while attempting to turn themselves into professional athletes. If college sports weren't already embedded in our society, those alternatives would surely develop. But college sports have too many built-in advantages, so it's hard to imagine anything like that developing organically unless college sports are either banned or regulated to the point of impracticability.

      Maybe that's what we need to do to make things fairer: come up with laws or regulations that make the current big-time college sports untenable in the long run. As I mentioned in my post above, I think that pay-for-play and unrestricted transfers could actually do that by bursting the pious illusions that give college sports a lot of their appeal. Perhaps we could also change the law so that college athletes have to be treated as university employees under certain circumstances (with the circumstances designed so that they occur only in D-1 basketball and football). Just make things onerous enough so that a more rational alternative becomes viable ...

  2. I'm not sure the hockey model does much good, as least as far as it applies to my concern that the money exploding in college basketball and football is not being adequately shared with students, and is being hoarded by coaches, ADs and the rest of the non-students in college basketball and football.

    The NBA had such a model since the Spencer Haywood Supreme Court decision in 1971 until the current one and done rule started in 2005. During that time high school players had the ability to go straight to the pros, although few did until Kevin Garnett in 1995. They also had the right to leave college early to turn pro at any time. There were alternatives to the NBA such as the ABA before the merger, and then the CBA and euro leagues, which allowed talented but not great players to play professionally while they worked toward the NBA. The basketball alternatives were not nearly as extensive as what exists in hockey, but there were alternatives.

    Those rules allowing the best players to leave college didn't stop college basketball from increasing revenue by an astronomical amount over the past 30 years. I don't think the revenue would leave college basketball even if some of the top tier talent did. I think the revenue is driven by the realization of colleges that they have a super popular product and can monetize it in ways they couldn't 20 years ago- more TV games, internet access, etc.

    If the money is there to stay, and I think it is, then I just want to see it shared with all the kids instead of hoarded by the adults. My concern isn't really with the best players as most of them will get paid anyway when they turn pro.

    I certainly like the idea of scrapping the current model for basketball and football to have a minor league system where players can go get paid, and a coexisting college system where kids can play for their school while they get an education. At least in that system they get a choice if they want to be underpaid to play for a college while they get an education, and if they choose that, then it's harder to call the college unfair for exploiting them.

    We both know this will not happen in our lifetime. There is so much protection for the monopolies of pro and college football/basketball that I find it hard to see change driven by new leagues in the US. Although I have to wonder if market forces could provide an alternative overseas, at least for basketball. Perhaps as sports entertainment grows in the euro leagues, enough money will start to draw more American talent overseas, and that will become a more viable option for kids.