This year’s NCAA Men’s Final Four basketball tournament offered an interesting twist in that there was a new breed of “one-and-done” players participating. These athletes were not the typical Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky one-and-done freshmen who leave high school to play for one season at the college level before turning pro.
Rather, this new breed was represented by Matt Mooney and Tariq Evans of Texas Tech. Like Duke’s Zion Williamson and North Carolina’s Koby White, Mooney and Evans are one-and-done athletes. However, Mooney and Evans are radically different one-and-done athletes than are Williamson and White. They are not freshman and they have already earned their undergraduate degree but have one year of eligibility remaining. They took advantage of the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule, adopted in 2011, which allows athletes who have earned a degree and have eligibility remaining to transfer to another school without having to sit out a year. The rule rewards athletes with flexibility in choosing where to play their final season for achieving what the NCAA says is the most important goal of all student-athletes — to earn a college diploma.
This is a good example of the NCAA getting it “right” on an issue relating to athlete welfare and rights.
But as with most everything related to the NCAA and athletes’ rights, a story about a rule that benefits athletes can become complicated. Fortunately, this story ended in a good way.
Shortly after the tournament ended, the Association considered a proposal to revise the rule. The change considered would have, for all intents and purposes, eliminated the rule entirely as the revision, if passed, would have imposed such strict penalties on schools accepting such transfers as to effectively deny athletes this opportunity. The rule change would have required colleges accepting graduate transfers be docked a scholarship the next year if the transfer did not earn his secondary degree within a year. As most graduate programs take at least two years to complete, this would have effectively added a “tax” on a school in the form of having to count a scholarship for two years for a player who had only one year of eligibility remaining.
According to the NY Times (April 7, 2019), Justin Sell, the athletic director at South Dakota State, who leads the Division I transfer working group that developed the proposal, said that too often graduate transfers in men’s basketball and football had little interest in obtaining graduate degrees.
“A lot of students are looking to use it to play another year. Who’s seriously there for the master’s?” he said.
As if the freshman one-and-done athletes are fully engaged in and committed to the academic process?
On the face of it, these two one-and-done scenarios are fundamentally different. But on another level, they both reveal in stark contrast, the utter hypocrisy of the college athletic community — from the coaches to the athletic administrators to faculty athletic representatives to college presidents.
First, let’s examine the rule that prohibits an athlete from entering the NBA directly from high school. While this is a rule that the NBA and NCAA have both influenced, and benefit from, regardless of which is the driving force behind it, the fact is it is highly hypocritical. It’s not only that every other high school graduate can become “professional” in his or her chosen profession immediately after high school whether that be music, the arts or literature, the athlete cannot. But it is hypocrisy at a much more fundamental level as it relates to the entire culture and enterprise of elite athletics in America.
From the time athletes show talent and promise, the elite sports culture, particularly in the sports of football and men’s basketball shower praise, resources and attention on them. The message is clear from the beginning,
“You have talent. You are good enough to get a scholarship and maybe even play professionally. Don’t worry so much about all of those other things like academics and a social life. Concentrate on playing ball. It’s your ticket to the top.”
But once the athlete develops to a point where, as a senior in high school, he can earn millions of dollars playing professionally, suddenly the NCAA begins to sing a different tune. “No, you need to go spend some time on a college campus because education is important.” This, despite the fact that it is only for one year and far too often the athlete is simply biding time before turning pro. When a player like Zion Williamson comes along who can contribute to the NCAA money-making enterprise and become a college star who can fill arenas, drive ratings and generate profits, the narrative magically turns to, “You need some education first.”
The proposed change to the graduate transfer rule demonstrated the NCAA’s hypocrisy in a different manner.
The primary justification for athletics on a college campus is that it is about providing opportunities to use athletics to “get an education” and earn a degree. According to every NCAA administrator, coach or athletic department administrator, the number one priority for athletes who play college sports is to earn a degree.
When an athlete accepts the terms of the scholarship and not only meets them but exceeds them in earning a degree while still having a year of eligibility left, suddenly that is not enough. The athlete has done everything that has been asked of him. He has played by the rules. He has met his athletic and academic obligations and has achieved what everyone says is the number one priority of the college athletic experience — he has earned his degree. In short, he has fulfilled his contractual agreement with the university. Yet, the “rulers” of “the system” continue to believe they “own” their players.
Simply put, if the rule was revised as proposed, it would have demonstrated, once again, that to the NCAA, an athlete who has done everything the right way still has not earned or deemed worthy enough be provided some small measure of control over their lives, education and sports careers. The question would have been, “Can’t the NCAA and its coaches cede any degree of total control over “their” athletes or do they continue to be “indentured servants” even after they have graduated?”
Rather than looking for ways to limit the transfer, academic and athletic options available to someone who has done everything asked of him and graduated, schools and their coaches should be celebrating a success story, shaking that athlete’s hand, thanking them profusely, congratulating them on earning a degree and wishing them the best of luck no matter where they want to play their final season of eligibility.
Fortunately, to the NCAA’s great credit, the graduate transfer rule change was voted down. That said, the Association still has work to do. Specifically, in keeping in the spirit of athlete welfare and rights, it is time for the NCAA to work with the NBA to eliminate the prohibition against high school seniors going directly to the NBA. In short, let’s keep the “one-and-done” that rewards students who graduate and eliminate the rule that restricts athletes’ rights and created the original “one-and-done”.