Imagine you are 18 years old. You have been receiving phone calls, emails, letters, and text messages from college coaches since you were 15. These coaches have been praising your athletic skills, trying to sell their program, trying to get to know you better, and ultimately asking you to come play for them. All of that attention from the coaches, time spent talking with your family and friends about the best fit looking at factors like; major, distance from home, the conference they play in, the city the school is in. All of that has led to today, National Signing Day. You know that you have picked the right school. You feel good in their colors. You have met some of the other student-athletes in your signing class and you know this is the right place for you. What could go possibly wrong?
It turns out there are plenty of things that can go wrong. Student-athletes today are transferring at a higher rate than ever before. According to the NCAA about 40 percent of all men’s basketball players who graduate high school and go on to play Division I basketball transfer schools by the end of their sophomore year (“Tracking transfer,” 2015). In most cases the decision to transfer is an attempt by the student-athlete to put them in a better position for increased playing time, but plenty of other factors can lead to a decision to transfer. In my search for answers, I didn’t find any research that explicitly looks at why student-athletes transfer. In my experience as a student-athlete, and a graduate assistant in a Division I athletic department, I have observed several factors that most frequently lead to a decision to transfer.
Lack of Playing Time:
Many student-athletes feel their personal identity is tied to their identity as an athlete. If a student-athlete isn’t getting the playing time they deserve it can affect their confidence, their social relationships, and their academic performance. The student-athlete makes many transfer decisions so they can put themselves in the best position to succeed athletically.
Relationship with the Coach:
No matter how great it seems like you’re getting along during the recruiting process, you don’t really have a true idea of what practice, competition, and off-season training is going to be like, and how the relationship with your coach is going to develop. Sometimes the student-athlete decides the relationship has not developed in the way they envisioned, and the student-athlete decides to leave. Sometimes the coach asks the student-athlete to look at transferring because they don’t think the student-athlete is a fit for their program.
Distance from Home:
Sometimes the school is simply too far from home. Going out on your own to make a name for yourself at 18 can be a difficult task. You are dealing with balancing academic challenges, and social pressures you may have never faced before, while being challenged athletically on an elite level. All of those factors, along with the fact that you are separated from your family, friends, and the comfort of home, can make life difficult.
This is stating the obvious, but occasionally college students don’t always make the best decisions. Whether it’s an honor code violation, underage drinking citation, failed drug test, criminal action, or any other violation of team rules, at times student-athletes are forced to leave. Other times student-athletes are embarrassed by a decision they made and decide a fresh start might be best move for them.
With the amount of pressure coaches face to win today, the coaching carousel is moving faster than ever before. When new coaches come in, the student-athletes they inherit need to build those relationships all over again. From time to time, the student-athletes don’t fit the new scheme and feel they need to go somewhere where they are wanted. Frequently coaches want to make their mark on the program right away by changing the culture. This process of changing the culture often involves removing players who are hurting the culture and making room for new talent to come in (Fowler, 2014). Whether it is disciplinary action, or a decision not to renew a student-athlete’s scholarship, coaching changes seem to be a leading cause for roster turnover.
So why is this transfer information newsworthy? Well in my experience students who are asked to leave, forced to leave, or make a decision to transfer on their own, are often uneducated on what lies ahead of them. Often times they risk losing credits, and the life they have created at their current institution, at the expense of searching for athletic success. Maybe the student-athlete will ask an academic advisor for help, or have an empathetic coach willing to help them out, but the most consistent message I’ve seen is something along the lines of “If you’re transferring, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” And I think that’s wrong. If the mission of college athletics is to help our student-athletes develop into well-rounded individuals, and set them up for future success, then how can we kick them to the curb when they aren’t able to do anything for us anymore? A social worker, or somebody in a similar role, would be able to help the student-athlete decide if a transfer really is the right decision for them. If they are being forced out, they could help them talk through the emotions surrounding such a difficult situation. Ultimately they would be able to connect the student-athlete with campus resources to obtain the necessary paperwork and help them make the smoothest transition possible.
Under current NCAA transfer legislation student-athletes transferring from Division I institution to another Division I school in baseball, men’s basketball, men’s ice hockey, and football, must sit out one academic year. The first year at their new school is supposed to be their acclimation period (NCAA Division I Manual, 2015). But why don’t student-athletes who compete in swimming and diving need that same acclimation period? It seems like the NCAA is conveniently trying to preserve a sense of amateurism in the sports that produce the most revenue.
My recommendation to the NCAA is twofold. First, they need to allow transfers to play right away in all sports. At the very least, if the head coach that you committed to play for is fired, or leaves for another job, the student-athlete should be allowed to play immediately if they decide to transfer. While this rule change would most likely lead to an increase in transfers, if there were a staff member assigned to working with transfers, then this issue can become an organized process, which would benefit both the outgoing student-athlete and the school they are going to. Some may have the mentality that they don’t want to do work for another institution because that’s the next institution’s problem to deal with, and they’re our competition, but in the end it balances out. If we use Tulane’s men’s basketball program as a case example you can see what I’m talking about. Last offseason we lost four transfers, but gained the services of a transfer who had come in from LSU and sat the previous academic year out, and a graduate transfer from the University of Washington who was eligible to play right away. This offseason we fired our head coach and immediately lost two transfers. We also brought in a transfer from Vanderbilt who left after his head coach Kevin Stallings left to take the same position at the University of Pittsburgh. At the end of the day, the transfer process can be messy, but if we make some changes, together we can help make it easier on the student-athletes involved.
(2015). NCAA Division I Manual. Indianapolis, IN: NCAA Membership Affairs Staff. Retrieved from http://www.ncaapublications.com/productdownloads/D116APR.pdf
Fowler, J. (2014, September 5). Texas' Charlie Strong has disciplined most among first-year coaches. In CBSSports.com. Retrieved June 20, 2016, from http://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/texas-charlie-strong-has-disciplined-most-among-first-year-coaches/
Tracking transfer in Division I Men’s Basketball. (2015, December 9). In NCAA Research. Retrieved June 20, 2016, from http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/tracking-transfer-division-i-men-s-basketball