The NCAA’s Era of Player Empowerment?

What’s the era of player-empowerment?

Similar to the NBA’s nomadic superstars dictating the league’s layout, we now live in the era of player-empowerment in college sports.  College football could have it’s own blog on the subject, with so many recent transfers in the spotlight. It’s wild seeing so many college football players dominating right away. On top of that, you’re seeing these transfers getting drafted high enough to compete for day-1 starting jobs at the NFL-level. Don’t believe me? Let’s look.

Top 3 in Heisman voting for the 2019 season: Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts, Justin Fields – all three transfers. 2018? 3 of the top 5 (including the winner) were transfers: Kyler Murray, Will Grier, Gardner Minshew (!!!). 2017’s top Heisman vote recipients is a little less transfer heavy, but the winner, you may know him – Baker Mayfield was yet ANOTHER transfer. For those keeping score at home, that’s 3 straight Heisman winners that were transfers… that’s BONKERS. 

What does it mean?  Well, it seems that talented players at blue-blood programs are being overlooked.  Those players are more willing than ever to uproot and take their talents elsewhere, for an immediate opportunity to play.  Why is this seeming to be more common now? Well I would argue that information and communication is more accessible than ever, making for a dangerous recipe for sports loyalty to exist.  

(An off-the-rails example: The NBA’s totally skewered anti-tampering policy is impossible to uphold.  Players talk among themselves constantly, there’s not stopping that. Superstars are entrusted more and more with influencing their front office’s player operations decisions.  As a result, they’re sculpting the makeup of their teams, which is in part because it’s the best way to keep that superstar content and in town – but also because fellow-players make the best recruiters.)

Isn’t transferring out the coward’s way out?

Based on the reactions I’ve seen, some old timer type fans seem to think players are acting more quixotic than ever. Don’t get me wrong – the allure of being a contributor on a team from a Power-5 conference is as romanticized as ever. But shouldn’t it be? Charter flights over commercial. Team chefs over dining halls. Top of the line practice facilities over rundown gyms. Of course the Cinderella mid-majors come and go. But let’s be real, those are lightning in a bottle situations. For players who have proven themselves, looking at the board with an even-keeled mind, it’s extremely tempting to transfer out of a top tier mid-major like the Atlantic 10 or C-USA and play in the ACC or Big East. 

So transfers are happening very often with elite college football players bouncing between top-tier programs and they’re flourishing.  Is it the same for college basketball? No, not really at all. I would say lesser impact players are transferring, but for very different reasons, and mainly from non-power 5 conferences. The recent rule-changes essentially grants immediate eligibility for first-time transfers. The effect is a de facto free agency for rising college hoopers, willing to make rash decisions if their tenure at a mid-major program is not going as well as they had hoped.  Programs shift course, coaches change, and many promises aren’t kept.

It’s going to be mid-major programs that suffer the most. They committed to a player and planned on them being with the school for 4 years. Now they’re forced to recruit in a manner not dissimilar to a freshman-heavy Kentucky or Duke roster. Very different reasoning here, but hear me out. If a mid-major recruits a solid freshman class, in 1-2 years a team is going to be ripe for the picking. That mid-major coach better have similar young players recruited ready to go if they should be depleted via outward transfers. 

Where is the movement?

Some will transfer into mid-major programs from Power-5 schools, that’s a natural residual effect (which was basically already happening). The danger is the delay that may ensure. Let’s play out a scenario. An Atlantic 10 school has their best rising Junior transfer out to a school in a Power-5 conference. That transfer is now competing for playing time with an in-house player and an incoming recruit. If the school has the scholarships to offer a player the opportunity to transfer in, those other 2 players aren’t necessarily a lock to transfer out or de-commit.

Something like this would likely come down to a mid-to-late season decision where one of those 2 players elect to leave. Where they end up transferring to for their remaining eligibility is totally irrelevant to the point at-hand. That Atlantic 10 school may have a tough time bringing in another recruit or transfer right after their player leaves. That could cause an even steeper skill gap between A10 schools and Big East schools. The rich will only get richer. Smaller mid-major programs are suddenly expected to learn how to survive on the scraps of the scraps! All totally on the fly without much notice. 

Why is there more transferring happening right now?

With the abrupt ending of the 2019-2020 season, many players probably feel more free than usual to explore their other options.  The rule change allowing for immediately eligibility is a massive factor as well.  What does being sent home or stuck on campus without any closure to the season probably do to a young student-athlete’s psyche?  One can only imagine. With so many conference tournaments and any iteration of an NCAA tournament failing to take place, so many of these college-athletes have nothing final to show for this season.  Yes, it’s just 1 year, but for some, it could mean so much more. The cultivation of a lifelong passion for the game – done without much of a warning. Seasons ending without any chance for all of it to come to fruition on the largest stage most of these players will ever see. 

It may have been the wake up call needed for many to get out of their comfort zone and put themselves out there via the transfer portal.  Is the grass always greener? Of course not. Some of their decisions to transfer will prove to reap fruitless endeavors… but those who succeed? Those are the examples P5 assistant coaches are going to be using as examples to prospective transfers, an enticing taste of what their future could be. 

What say you, to these transfers breaking the hearts of mid-majors?

To those college athletes electing to transfer to bigger and better programs in conferences with much more money and charter flights, I don’t blame you.  (I just hope the NCAA does a better job of a revenue sharing process to lessen the financial gap between Division 1 programs. After all, these teams are supposedly on the same level of competition. The sport deserves a level of parity, giving mid-majors a fair chance to dance in March.)  Your coach could leave your whole team on a dime, so why shouldn’t you be afforded the same ability?  I don’t resent you for leaving a mid-major for what appear to be greener pastures.  In fact, I applaud you for getting out of your comfort zone to take on a new challenge.  I wish you the best.

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– Gilli (@BigGilli, and @SmallStateTakes Podcast) – https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/small-state-big-takes/id1432138166

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