By Jay Bilas
The Cameron Johnson-Pittsburgh transfer saga ended the way most of these high-profile transfer cases end: with the player being granted a full release after the school he or she is departing is made to look foolish, petty, vindictive or worse.
We saw it when Kansas State received a list of 35 schools to which Corey Sutton would consider transferring, but blocked him from all 35. After public outcry and after Kansas State football coach Bill Snyder humiliated himself in an on-camera interview on the subject, Kansas State gave Sutton his full release to transfer anywhere.
Johnson, a summa cum laude graduate of Pittsburgh, is the poster child for this issue. Johnson is the son of two proud Pitt graduates, one of whom played basketball for the Panthers. Johnson was recruited by Jamie Dixon, who left Pitt to coach at TCU. Dixon was replaced by Kevin Stallings, who left Vanderbilt to take the Pitt job. According to Johnson’s parents, Johnson had always wanted to attend North Carolina. Now that he had graduated from Pitt, with honors and in three years, he had that opportunity. There is no allegation or hint that there was any tampering, poaching or anything improper in Johnson’s choice to leave Pittsburgh and play at North Carolina.
When Johnson told Pittsburgh that he wanted to transfer to North Carolina, he was told, due to his exemplary performance as an honor student, he would be allowed to contact any ACC school, but would not be released to transfer to any ACC school or any school on Pittsburgh’s schedule. Johnson was told by a coach and an athletic director that had each just left a job while under contract to come to Pitt that he could not transfer to the school of his choice. That the associate athletic director who made the case to the Pitt appeal committee for Pitt’s restrictive transfer policy also just left Pitt for Oregon State was especially galling, and on the verge of hypocrisy.
Yet, Pitt persisted and vowed to fight for its policy to restrict a grad transfer to the bitter end. A Pitt source confirmed to me that this was less about Johnson than an effort to gain clarity on the grad transfer rule, and to force a change to the rule. Pitt was willing to lose the battle on Johnson to win the war on the rule itself.
To those in the Pittsburgh community, the restriction made sense, even though it is more of a rationalization than a well-reasoned policy. They cited competitive balance, that Pitt had invested in the development of Johnson and had compensated him, yet Johnson was going to walk away to a competitor, which was fundamentally unfair in their view. Pitt, they argued, was protecting the competitive landscape of college sports and deterring players from leaving and deterring competing schools from poaching players.
I find all of those “reasons” to be unpersuasive, excuses and rationalizations more than reasoned and consistent policy positions. This is not about Pittsburgh or its people. Pitt is a great place and it has great people. This is about policy. The policy on transfers on the NCAA level, the conference level, and the institutional level is simply bad. It needs to be changed.
In an unusual move, the NCAA provided Pittsburgh and North Carolina with an interpretation of the graduate transfer rule in Bylaw 14.6.1 and told each that the grad transfer rule was “all or nothing.” If Pitt denied Johnson a release to transfer, he could not play at all. Essentially, according to the NCAA interpretation of the rule, any school could keep any player from leaving as a graduate transfer and accepting aid and playing anywhere else. After the NCAA interpretation (and no doubt the public beating Pitt’s reputation was taking nationally), after having compliance, legal and administrative input, Pitt folded and released Johnson fully and completely.
In the end, for whatever reason and after a long and torturous route, Pitt did the right thing.
Let’s take a look at the policy positions of the NCAA and its member institutions, and how they relate to and affect its positions on transfers.
These are students, not employees
The NCAA position on “student athletes” is clear and unmistakable. The NCAA has asserted time and time again in court proceedings, under oath, that players are not employees, but are just students who happen to be athletes and are students to be treated like any other student. It is usually in the context of paying athletes or allowing athletes to be provided compensation for their athletic prowess, but it applies across the board.
If they are just students, like any other student, how can any institution complain when a student decides to leave the school to pursue his or her education elsewhere? Whether on scholarship or not, there is no restriction for any non-athlete student leaving one school and attending another and being able to receive aid or participate in any extracurricular activity.
Yet, with athletes (and only athletes), the school the athlete is leaving has the power to limit to where an athlete can transfer and receive aid and participate in varsity athletics. That is the equivalent of a “noncompete” provision in an employment contract. If not employees, how can NCAA rules allow any school to restrict the choice and movement of any student?
Noncompete provisions are bargained for between employers and employees and essentially paid for through employee compensation. According to NCAA policy, athletes are not employees and are not compensated. Their expenses are covered, but nothing more.
Some would argue that players are paid because they can receive a scholarship and incidental expenses in exchange for playing their sports. According to the NCAA, a scholarship is not pay. It is an educational expense. Clearly, no reasonable person would consider a Morehead-Cain Scholar at the University of North Carolina to be an employee and therefore subject to restrictions that would be the equivalent of a noncompete provision. If so, how could NCAA institutions block the transfer of a student simply because he or she is an athlete?
There are legitimate issues of competitive balance with regard to transfers, but they are precious few and they do not override the best interests of the athlete, including the athlete’s well being and choice. Pittsburgh’s long-term fortunes are not tied to Johnson or any other good player. If a school wants to retain players, treat them well so they don’t want to leave. Restricting their transfers does not and will not achieve competitive balance in an industry that has no competitive balance in the first place. There is no legitimate reason to limit the options of an unpaid, amateur student based upon the results of amateur sports contests.
No program will crumble based upon transfers. It just doesn’t happen. It is nonsense. To believe that player transfers will compromise the competitive balance of the game is laughable, especially when coaches and administrators can move from place to place with no restriction.
Johnson’s departure from Pitt upsets the competitive balance of the game, but not Dixon’s departure? Seriously?
If the NCAA were truly concerned with competitive balance, wouldn’t the same transfer rules apply to all sports? Why, then, are transfers immediately eligible to play at another institution (without having to sit out a year) in almost every sport but a few, most notably basketball and football? The answer is obvious.
Investment in players
Many consider that a school “invests” and develops players and deserves to benefit from that investment by retaining that developed asset. To those sharing that view, transfer restrictions serve as a deterrent to a transfer by working as a penalty. In my judgment, and based upon NCAA rhetoric, schools do not “invest” in players and are therefore not entitled to restrict them as employees or assets. Schools claim that these are not employees, but students. As such, these schools are investing not in their students, but they are investing in education. A claim that a school has an investment in any non-athlete student and should therefore be allowed to restrict the movement of that non-athlete student would draw laughter as being absurd. Can you imagine a school trying to restrict the transfer of a scholarship music student or scholarship mathematician due to the investment the school has made in that student? It is similarly absurd to do the same to an unpaid, amateur student who just happens to be an athlete.
Pittsburgh is right on one issue: The NCAA needs to overhaul its transfer rules and make them coherent and fair to the athlete. There is no legitimate reason for a school that a player is departing to have any say whatsoever in where a player goes after he or she leaves. It is simply wrong.
Here is what needs to happen: The NCAA should pass rules that allow transfers to be immediately eligible to compete at another institution at the conclusion of that season’s competition. As long as there is no “in-season” transfer, all else should be fair game. Players transfer for myriad legitimate reasons, and as long as they are legal, none of those reasons are the NCAA’s business. They are either students or employees. If they are indeed students, players should not be restricted in any way.