It’s a familiar scene in college athletics. A private jet (probably owned by a deep-pocketed booster) descends on a landing strip. Out walks the university’s newly anointed head football coach sporting a necktie that is the closest hue he could find to the university’s dominant color. He proceeds from the tarmac to the football stadium where he gives his opening press conference.
Meanwhile, in a locker room far away, student athletes cope with a tough reality. The man who had spent time sitting on their parents’ couch, telling them how he was going to take care of their son and assuring them that he would never leave the school, has indeed left for greener pastures.
Welcome to the world of college athletics, where coaches have freedom of movement and are paid handsomely, while unpaid students are stuck with the institutions they chose as teenagers. It doesn’t need to remain like this, though. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) can begin to correct the imbalance between coaches and players by removing the restrictions that impede student-athletes from transferring to another institution of higher learning.
To give you a sense of that imbalance, consider this: In 39 of 50 states, college coaches are the highest-paid public employees. Their compensation dwarfs the salaries of governors, judges, and school superintendents. In December, Jimbo Fisher inked a 10-year, $75 million guaranteed contract to coach Texas A&M University’s football team. Whether Fisher loses 120 games or wins 10 national championships, he will receive all of that money.
College head coaches can make all of these decisions without having to obtain permission from the NCAA. They suffer no financial or procedural consequences, other than perhaps a hit to their reputations among those they abandon.
At the same time, the NCAA has a host of rules governing student athletes who wish to transfer. Under current NCAA rules, if you’re a disgruntled student athlete who wants to transfer to another school, “The NCAA may require you to sit out of competition for a year after transferring to help you adjust to your new school.”
If a student athlete wishes to leave, they must receive the blessing of their institution. This is a tall order. As you can imagine, institutions are reluctant to let a talented player (correction: student athlete) leave their team before their contract (correction: eligibility) has expired. And even if the athlete clears this hurdle, the institution can place creative restrictions on where they can play.
For example, in 2009 University of Miami quarterback Robert Marve attempted to transfer to another school in Florida. But since his coach didn’t let him transfer to any program in competing conferences or the state, he was forced to eventually transfer to Purdue University in Indiana.
This sophisticated form of serfdom must end.
The NCAA is currently considering a proposal that would do just that. Crafted by faculty athletic representatives at Baylor University and Iowa State University, it would allow athletes to transfer without sitting out a season.
The key language from the proposal allows a student-athlete to transfer to an institution and immediately be eligible to play if, “ [T]he student-athlete’s head coach at the original institution resigned or was fired during or after the most recent season of competition, except that the student-athlete is not immediately eligible at another institution at which the head coach is employed.” (see page 2)
The proposal also allows the student to be immediately eligible if sanctions have been imposed that limit postseason competition in the athlete’s sport, earned a baccalaureate degree at the original institution or if the athlete did not receive athletically-related financial aid.
The proposal is a good idea for several reasons. For starters, it attempts to level the playing field between student athletes and the millionaires who coach them. It also forces institutions to be more vigilant in providing attractive student services to entice athletes to stay and gives athletes an escape hatch when the leadership team they committed to drastically changes.
Rest assured that crafty lawyers, head coaches, and athletics directors are huddling to construct a host of amendments to this controversial proposal. Most of them will claim they have the best interests of student athletes in mind.
We shouldn’t listen to them. Student athletes should receive the same freedom to relocate that is afforded their head coaches. In 2018, it’s time to dismantle the NCAA’s prohibitive transfer rules.
I once mentored a student majoring in computer science who sought to transfer from The University of Texas at Austin because she felt she could flourish at another institution. So she simply applied to several schools, was admitted by a few, chose one, and left. No deans had to give her their blessing. She wasn’t prohibited from coding for a year at her new home.
If we want our student athletes to succeed both on and off the field, we should start treating them with the respect they deserve.
Daron K. Roberts is a former NFL and college coach and serves as founding director of the Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in Fortune.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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