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Coaches Need Skin in the Game With Transfers and NLI

There seems to be a lot of hope, even momentum, behind a comprehensive solution to some of the problems with transferring and the National Letter of Intent. The NCAA may be proposing elimination of the permission to contact requirement for transfers. And a number of high profile battles over the NLI may prompt changes to the terms over the next couple of years.

But what if these rather grandiose changes fall through? Elimination of permission to contact will not be received well by coaches and the NLI is as likely to get even more strict as it is more lenient. While there will be increasing public pressure to eliminate transfer restrictions and allow unilateral releases by athletes from the NLI, the fact is it might not get done. In that case, the question will turn to a possible compromise.

One example in the disparity between athletes and coaches is that coaches have little to lose by refusing to release an athlete either from the NLI or to transfer. If an athlete wants to walk away from the team they signed with or played on, they may lose a season of eligibility or have to pay their own way for a year. If a coach refuses to release them, the coach risks some negative publicity that might blow over by the time the next recruiting class has to sign. Combine this with similarly small consequences for cutting an athlete’s aid and it becomes clear why an athlete might feel they have no bargaining power in the process.

A compromise solution might be to keep NLI and transfer releases but increase the cost for a coach who wants to deny an athlete’s release. This could mean that if a coach refuses to grant permission for an athlete to contact a school or an NLI release and the athlete ultimately leaves, the coach is not allowed to re-award that scholarship for one year. That could be coupled with lighter penalties for simply refusing permission to contact, like loss of some recruiting opportunities.

At some level, an athlete who wants to transfer or out of the NLI represents a recruiting failure by the coach. The coach either should not have recruited that athlete or should have done a better job selling them on the school. Right now, the risk of that recruiting mistake is disproportionately born by the athlete. They risk both losing their scholarship (especially if it is awarded year to year) and of not being able to attend the institution they want next.

Putting a cost on denying a release evens out the playing field a bit. A coach would have to decide if fighting the release is worth it. In some cases it might be. In many though, the cost of losing a scholarship for a year will create a much bigger competitive disadvantage than allowing the athlete to transfer even within the conference. An athlete on a conference rival might hurt you at most 3–5 times per year even in a sport like baseball. A lower scholarship limit hurts the team every game.

The caveat, like all transfer discussions, is tampering. This would have to be backed by more aggressive enforcement of tampering rules, along with relief from the penalty if tampering is proven. In addition, it does not solve some of the issues with the existing transfer rules like denying an athlete a scholarship which might irrevocably harm their education.

If the NLI and transfer permission to contact is going to stand though, the balance between student-athletes and coaches has to even out. Because coaches bear little risk in opposing a transfer, loosening restrictions on athletes alone cannot solve the problem. There has to be a change on the other side of the equation, making it harder or most costly for coaches to oppose an athlete leaving without a very good reason.

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