BIRMINGHAM — Over the past two years, Alabama head coach Nick Saban has appeared at odds with the Southeastern Conference over the league’s transfer policy, especially with regard to inter-conference moves among players.
But despite Saban’s opposition to the idea, it appears potential NCAA-permitted “free agency” could be on the horizon, especially if a new proposal submitted by the NCAA’s transfer working group is passed later this summer.
The working group, which met over the last two days in Indianapolis, recently recommended Proposal 2017-108 that would effectively rewrite the current transfer model, which gave the student-athlete’s current program partial authority over the transfer. The new proposal would allow student-athletes to provide written notification of their intent to transfer and then be entered in a “national transfer database” to effectively re-open their recruitment.
The proposal will now go before the NCAA’s Division I Council at its annual meetings in June to be voted on, with the expectation that any affirmative move wouldn’t be in effect until after Oct. 15, according to a report by ESPN.
And while it’s unclear whether this proposal will even get approved, or be tabled for another year of discussion, the NCAA’s transfer landscape appears to be slipping away from the program-centric model Saban and many other veteran head coaches have grown accustomed to, according to SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.
“I think there's been a power shift,” Sankey said during his annual Q&A at the APSE Southeast Regional meeting Monday afternoon at Samford University. “The ability for people to communicate that, ‘hey, I'm leaving,’ we've seen over the past years in any number of circumstances raises an issue. The ability to control communication, destination, and financial aid upon departure, I think that's a piece that needs to change.
“Now what the notification is, when do you leave, those are the mechanical issues that have to be worked out. I'm going to respect right now the transfer working group and see how they further refine concepts.”
In the past, individual programs had certain authority to dictate where one of their student-athletes could transfer, often placing selective restrictions that kept them from leaving to go play for a rival or a team on their schedule that coming season.
But in August 2016, former Alabama defensive back Maurice Smith successfully lobbied the SEC and Sankey to transfer to Georgia for his final season of eligibility without having to sit the league-mandated year of residency before being able to play.
The move prompted quite the discussion at last year’s SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Fla., where Saban described a proposal by Georgia to make inter-conference transfers easier to collegiate “free agency,” though no conference-wide decisions were made while the NCAA sought to reevaluate the entire Division transfer model in the coming year.
“I've never been in favor of free agency in our league. I don't think that's a good thing,” Saban said last May. “I wasn't for it last year. I don't think I'll ever be for it. I mean, why should guys leave your team and go play for somebody else and you have to play against them? I don't think that's fair.”
Now it appears transfers like Smith’s might be more frequent in the not-so-near future.
According to the rationale provided by the NCAA's transfer working group, the proposal “presents a notification-based alternative to replace the existing permission to contact process and improve the recruiting environment associated with four-year college transfer student-athletes. Pursuant to a notification model, a student-athlete would be permitted to explore transfer opportunities at any other Division I institution once written notification is provided.”
The transfer database creates “more transparency” to avoid any impermissible contact between student-athletes and interested programs before the athlete’s current school is properly notified
For Sankey, who himself transferred twice as an undergrad, the proposal could be an opportunity to both allow the student-athlete some sense of control over their own future without necessarily creating a “free agency” scenario.
“I know in my experience, which is not determinative, I transferred twice (and) it took me five years to graduate,” Sankey said. “I'm a reasonably successful adult depending on one's perspective. I respect that people have to make adjustments even at young points in life, and that's part of the educational process. But how do we facilitate that as part of the educational process is really the core question.”