A Response to Mark Lewis on College Transfers

In “Transfers – The Sanity Of Sitting Out” Mark Lewis dismisses those who disagree with him as “a multitude of people [who] are quick to jump on the bandwagon calling for a solution that they quickly prove they’ve given very little thought to.”  Ouch.  Now, Mr. Lewis’ position is understandable and reasonable, given that he has spent decades doing what he does.  However, doing something for over a quarter century doesn’t give one a broad view of the matter, just a very, very familiar and entrenched view of one aspect of it.

Mark presents that aspect of the recruiting and transfer situation very forcefully.  But in order to do that, he leaves out some facts and distorts others.

He starts off by equating the right to leave with being an employee, and specifically, an employee of the athletics department.   “…coaches are employees and athletes are not.”  While it is true that coaches are employees of the athletics department and can leave without penalty, so can faculty and so can student advisers, who are employees of the university but not of the athletics department.  So can referees, members of the media, national evaluators,  and others associated with the sport who are certainly not employees of the university nor of the athletics department.  So can the hot dog vendor, the trainer, the statistician, any volunteers, alumni, and just about everyone else.

Except the athletes.

He harps on this employment notion that he has, as though becoming an employee is the only path to freedom. “Classifying athletes as employees has big picture ramifications that are often overlooked and far outweigh the possible advantages such a move might bring,” he claims.  I agree that the student-athletes are not employees, that, as students, they are in a different class altogether. What they are is much more like customers of the school, hoping to buy an education, or at least to buy a degree.

Fortunately, he does get back to “the actual topic at hand…transfers.”

Mark labels the notion of college athletes exploring other opportunities as “insanity” while at the same time decrying their lack of research and due diligence.  He disparages anything that an athlete learns the hard way as screw-ups on their part.  Oftentimes, though, the reality of the situations they find themselves in is something they could not have anticipated, never having experienced before in their lives college athletics, the particular coach they have, and the whole rest of their situation.  Sometimes, despite their best effort and an intense amount of forethought, they still get it wrong.  As the economist John Maynard Keynes once said “When I’m wrong, I change my mind. What do you do?”

As far as penalizing transfers, the question I have is “WHY?”  You suggest that penalizing transfers will discourage them from making a bad choice in the first place, but that does not stand to reason.  If that were the case, it would already be having the desired effect and we would not be seeing these “elevated transfer rates.”  When a prospective student-athlete makes a decision about where to go and that decision works out poorly, their penalty is already being paid.  If they had known their choice was going to make them unhappy, they would have not made that choice in the first place.  Do you really think a high school-aged person decides to go to College X so they can be unhappy for a year or more and then spend another year sitting out?

Well, you say, they should have known.

Uh, no.

What you have in the recruiting process are coaches, on one side, who have been through the drill hundreds, if not thousands of times, who have information locked in their heads about other recruits and a whole host of other factors.  Also, a large part of coaching success is the ability to get other people to do things they, by nature, would not do of their own accord.  Part of the job of a coach is to get their players to forget about their self-interest for the sake of the team.  The better a coach is at that, the better they are on gameday.  On the other side you have young, inexperienced people who’s success on the court or the field depends, in part, on their abandonment of their own self-interest.

Not exactly a formula for ensuring that the athlete’s long-term interests are fulfilled.

The fact of the matter is that the playing field is anything but level, it is tremendously tilted toward the coaches, recruiters, sponsors who are acting in concert to determine the futures of the student athletes they covet.  As today’s arrests and charges show (see Bleacher Report’s article here ) these “advisers” often cannot be trusted to have the athlete’s interests at heart.

Mark does, I think, raise some good points, though.  His point about some athletes spending way too much time in self glorification on social media, time that would be better spent researching options (or studying) is certainly welcome.  He also refers to the possibility of an athlete’s coaches and teammates being harmed by being kept in the dark if the program is not informed about the athlete’s intentions.  To be sure, if an athlete is contemplating leaving their program for another, they owe it to their team and to themselves to not only inform their team but to also to be engaged with the coaching staff to see if there is a solution that will keep them in place.  It certainly would not be unreasonable for programs to require advance notification before an athlete talks with other teams.  Nobody needs to be kept in the dark.

Now, once they do transfer, there are some good reasons for a student to spend some time focused on their new learning environment and not on athletics.  However, the NCAA seems to not have the educational aspect of this at all in mind when they force a transfer to sit out a season rather than a semester.  Clearly the intent is punitive, not to help the student athlete.  To me, it seems reasonable to have the student spend some time, say a summer session, at their new school to help them become acclimated before becoming an active, playing member of their new team.

Additionally, given the huge role that coaches and recruiting coordinators play in this “shameful reality of the ever growing number of transfers,” it seems appropriate that they be induced to go after recruits that are less likely to want to roam after a season or two.  Given the hundreds or even thousands of athletes that some of these coaches have coached over the years, and given their ability as motivators and their ability to understand the psyche of their players, encouraging coaches to recruit with an eye towards player retention will help.  Specifically, penalizing the coach and/or the program in the case of a transfer (say with the loss of a scholarship or the coach sitting out some games) will help coaches select players that will want to be around for more than a single year.  That way, the decisions we’ve been seeing might find the focus, patience and emphasis that they warrant.

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