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 opinionon the transfer rules and their exceptions:
"There should be no exceptions," Krzyzewski told ESPN.com. "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.