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Q+A: Take NCAA’s Surprise Rule Change Announcement with a Grain of Salt

The proposed rule change would expand to allow athletes in baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, football and men’s ice hockey to immediately play after a first-time transfer.

Last month, the NCAA unexpectedly announced a proposal to change the longstanding first-time transfer rule to allow all Division I athletes to immediately play at the new school if they meet established criteria. The announcement came as a surprise. Even more of a surprise is how quickly the rule change would go into effect: fall 2020. 

While some are celebrating this move as a step in the right direction for college athletes, others are concerned about the NCAA’s motives according to a Feb. 26 Sports Illustrated article. Ellen Staurowsky, EdD, professor in the Sport Management program of the LeBow College of Business, explained what the rule change means for college athletes and why the NCAA’s quick move should be noted.

What would the proposal to change the transfer waiver process mean for college athletes?

Under current NCAA policy, first-time transfers can immediately compete for their new teams in all sports except baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, football and men’s ice hockey. Supported by the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the latest proposed change to the transfer waiver process liberates athletes in those five sports from the requirement of serving a year in residence before competing and unifies the process for athletes who meet established criteria. 

Moving forward, should the proposal be approved in April of 2020 by the NCAA Division I Council, athletes in all sports seeking to transfer for the first time would be immediately eligible to compete if they were released from their previous institution, were academically eligible when they left their previous institution, were able to maintain their academic progress at their new institution and were under no disciplinary suspensions. 

Notably, this proposed change does not alter the existing NCAA bylaw on transfers but expands the reach of the waiver process so that it covers this group of athletes who were singled out and treated differently than other NCAA Division I athletes in the transfer process. 

Will this benefit college athletes?

Should the proposed change pass, it would go into effect for the 2020-2021 year. It holds the potential of benefitting athletes in several ways.

First, athletes in the sports that had previously been treated differently, would receive the benefit of being able to play immediately upon transferring to another school and would no longer suffer the penalty of losing a season after deciding to transfer.

Second, this change affords football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey players the increased freedom that athletes in other sports have had to move to another school.

Third, this resolves the issue of athletes being treated differently from other students, a third of whom typically transfer at least once during their college careers, without restriction.

Fourth, such a change removes a limitation on player movement that does not exist for their coaches. Coaches have historically had much greater latitude to leave programs while the athletes they recruited and made promises to are confronted with regulations that have made it harder for them to leave and move on. 

Do you think this is related to name, image and likeness (NIL) legislation? And if so, how will it affect the NCAA’s NIL stance?   

The timing of the NCAA’s announcement, that a change in restrictions limiting player movement in sports that serve as a pipeline to the pros, following very public criticism from the nation’s lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the NCAA’s failure to meaningfully address the issue of compensating athletes for the use of their names, images and likenesses is very likely not a coincidence. What troubles some is the possibility that the NCAA is using the transfer waiver proposal as a sign to members of the U.S. Congress that college sport officials are seriously working to address athlete rights issues that have long been neglected. 

A liability for the NCAA, however, is the fact that they have specifically fast-tracked this issue, thus showing quite explicitly that the organization has the capacity to move quickly to resolve issues if they so choose. When pressed about why there has been no movement on the NIL issue, those same officials have stated time and again that the NCAA is not set up to deal with matters quickly, that their deliberative processes are slow and complicated. The NCAA can’t have it both ways and they demonstrate in the transfer waiver proposal that it is well within their capacity to deal with the NIL issue expeditiously, but intentionally throw up impediment after impediment instead.

At a political level, this proposal seems to be an obvious gambit on the part of the college sport establishment to buy time on the NIL front. 

Is there anything else you think is important to note on this rule change proposal?

The proposal to relax the transfer waiver process and make it uniform across all sports, while publicly supported by at least two major conferences, has evinced concern from the American Football Coaches Association and individual coaches who argue that the latitude given to players by the change amounts to free agency. While some fret about what they see as the potential for “mass transfers,” others realistically note that the restrictions in place to punish athletes for transferring have not deterred athletes from transferring.  

Media interested in an interview with Staurowsky should contact Annie Korp at 215-571-4244 or

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