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Potential NCAA Rule Change Could Mean More Freedom For College Athletes

USAG Humphreys via Flickr

Spend any appreciable time around those in Generation Z, the group born between 1995 and 2015 and you understand that the only constant is change. Seemingly everything in their lives is up for grabs as precious little is static.

One of the few areas of Gen Z life that has been consistent and unchanging is in the athletic realm where movement among college athletes is stifled and has been for decades.

Now, in the last few weeks, we’re seeing the first steps toward a revolution in the ability of young collegiate sportsmen and women to have what their peers in academia have: freedom to move from one campus to another to find the right fit.

Officials from two of the most powerful leagues in college sports, the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference, have, in recent weeks, indicated a willingness to take the proverbial shackles off their athletes, to a point, by allowing athletes to transfer from school to school without restrictions.

At present, athletes in five sports – men’s and women’s basketball, baseball, hockey and football – are required by NCAA rules to sit out a year if they transfer to another school, presumably to acclimate themselves to the new surroundings.

They do get the year back, but who knows what could happen in the life of an 18-to-22-year old in that time?

Plus, there’s a basic issue of fairness. Why should athletes in these sports be held to a different standard than those in sports like tennis, gymnastics or golf, who are able to come and go as they please?

Economics is one reason. Men’s basketball and football are the principal money makers at virtually all NCAA schools, while baseball, hockey and women’s basketball are big draws at a number of colleges and universities. Permitting homegrown, paid-for talent to up and walk without recourse is bad for business.

There are those who see a racial component in the transfer restriction, as the majority of athletes in football and basketball are African American.

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, himself African American, says that while the transfer rule itself is not intentionally racist, it does carry a disproportionate impact on people of color.  

There is an out in the current transfer rule. Athletes receive a five-year window to complete four years of play. If they receive an undergraduate degree before they use up their eligibility, they can transfer to another school as a graduate student without having to sit out.

In recent years, the NCAA has created a transfer portal, which allows graduate athletes to declare their intent to move and without the school’s permission, thus creating a second recruitment window, of sorts.

As a result, transfer numbers have boomed, causing more than a little consternation among coaches who fear watching talent walk out the door without restriction.

The Big Ten’s proposal, if approved by the NCAA membership, would give students a one-time scot-free undergraduate transfer, and recognizes that times have to change.

The ACC and Big Ten seem to want to make things better, if not right for students, a sentence you’ve hardly ever heard uttered about college athletics officials.

Now, if they could just get on board about paying athletes. That would be change.

And that’s how I see it for this week.

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Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.