While I was on my vacation, the NCAA tweaked its transfer rules.
None of the changes were particularly headline news. There were four tweaks in all — most of them minor in the grand scheme of things and all having to do with how waivers are granted to transfers for immediate eligibility rather than having to sit out a year.
All were designed to tighten up the waiver process. You know where I stand on transfers — I'm all for unlimited movement. Athletes should be able to move at will just as coaches and non-athlete students do without blinking an eye.
Transfer rules have been liberalized in the 2010s, and despite predictions of doom, the skyrocketing numbers of transfers has not dropped a nuclear bomb on college sports as many said they would. It's just an evolution, and generally, a market correction of how the talent is dispersed.
Division I transfers have become as much a part of the landscape of recruiting as the traditional high school recruiting and the junior college transfer process have been for several generations. Change is always feared, but once you get used to the new way? It's not that big of a deal.
Look no further than Indiana State to find examples of impact or popular players — Cooper Neese, Ryan Boyle, the entire 2019-20 women's basketball team — to understand that transfers aren't the scourge many predicted they would be.
But the fact that some in governance felt the need to "tighten things up" when it comes to transfers also goes to show that there are plenty of Chicken Little's at the institutional level who still feel threatened. While the shackles on transfers will continue to be eroded away for legal and commercial reasons, never underestimate the desire of those in power to slow the process down and to protect their power.
That's why I think scholarship reform is still badly needed. There's still many too contradictions and imbalances in the athlete-institution relationship that make it an unfair process.
From the start, there are contradictions with the way scholarships are structured. One example, but not the only one, is that prospective athletes are told they sign with the institution, not the coach, when they are recruited and when they eventually sign their Letter Of Intent.
This despite the fact that everyone knows the recruiting process itself is inordinately tied to the coach, not the institution. Sure, there are some institutions that sell themselves based on academics, atmosphere or athletic success, but most student-athletes are wooed, and attracted to a school, by the coach. No one from an academic department is accompanying the coach on a recruiting trip after all.
Then, if a coaching change is made? It's conveniently forgotten that the student-athlete was signing for "the institution" and not the coach. The new coach can, and often does, clear out the players they inherited. They can do that because scholarships are a one-year proposition.
This is overly harsh. Very few athletes, perhaps men's basketball one-and-done's are the only ones, sign a Letter Of Intent thinking it's a one-year deal. The vast majority of athletes and parents sign on the dotted line expecting five years to play four. But it often comes to tears, often beyond the athlete's control. They have no leverage once the LOI is signed. Institutions and the coaches who represent them hold all the cards.
So much for the promise of signing for an institution. The entire process can be a betrayal of the promises that were made to the student-athlete when they were being recruited. I've always found this to be a major flaw in the system. Personally, I cringe when I see programs move athletes out just because they can, especially when restrictions are put on those athletes to move as they please.
Yet, every school does it, including ISU. The most recent example is women's basketball — as mentioned, no one is back from the 2019 team on a roster where eight players could have had returning eligibility — but it's certainly not the only ISU program that's done it. Football has done the same thing a couple of times since I've been around.
While I don't like the fact that athletes can be wooed and discarded, I don't fully blame the coaches. They're just playing the game the way it's played and it's unfair to hold them to a principle — fair or not — if other schools won't do the same. If other schools are going to play the game a certain way? You can't blame ISU for playing it too — though I have utmost respect for the coaches who hold themselves to a principle and resist the urge to play the game.
All of the above is why the system needs reforming and my idea is a simple one — create scholarship flexibility by offering two kinds of athletic scholarships.
Give athletes the option of signing a one-year scholarship or a multi-year scholarship. Offer athletes and institutions a choice when the leverage for both is more or less equal at the start of the process.
In the case of a one-year scholarship, the arrangement would be much as it exists today. There would be no guarantee for the athlete or institution beyond the year agreed upon. A player could be cut or a player could transfer to a different school if they desired.
For the athlete and institution who agreed to a multi-year scholarship, it would be much different than the current setup. As mentioned, it would be a binding contract. The athlete would surrender their transfer freedom over the course of the multi-year scholarship and the institution would surrender their current ability to jettison an athlete when they feel like it.
If a multi-year scholarship was signed, the only way an institution could free itself from the multi-year obligation would be if the athlete didn't meet academic or legal standard agreed upon beforehand. If a coaching change occurred? The new coach would be obligated to make due with the players inherited if they were on a multi-year deal.
Similarly, the athlete couldn't just fly the coop if they didn't like the direction of coaching. They also couldn't leave to go pro without compensating the school for the lost years of their investment. It would be binding both ways.
The multi-year scholarships could be tailored by sport. For example, the way baseball works is that you're draft eligible after your junior season. If a player and school wanted to sign a three-year deal? So be it.
For this to work, protections would have to be put in place so institutions didn't game the system by only offering one-year scholarships, which would be the likely outcome if they were allowed to do so.
Athletes would be allowed to ask for the multi-year option if offered a one-year deal and the parties could negotiate from there. If, say, every institution in the Big Ten decided to only offer one-year scholarships? They'd open themselves up to collusion charges.
The multi-year scholarship would dramatically change the coach-athlete dynamic, admittedly, in a way many coaches would dislike. It would have to be more of a partnership than the top-down structure it currently is. I think it's a change worth making to make the system more equitable.
How do I think it would work in the real world? Honestly, I think many athletes might still choose the one-year option to maintain their flexibility, but they and their parents deserve to have a multi-year choice if they want it.
While I'm definitely not holding my breath that any of the above will happen — institutions are not going to cede the leverage they have in the current system without a big fight — I would love to see it happen to make college athletics better. For the athletes most of all, but also for the institutions, whether they see the benefits of the change or not.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or email@example.com. Follow Golden on Twitter at @TribStarTodd.