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Rooney: NCAA transfer updates long overdue

CU’s hoops, football players on equal footing as athletic peers

BOULDER, CO - April 12, 2021:  Colorado quarterback JT Shrout during University of Colorado football practice. (University of Colorado Athletics)
BOULDER, CO – April 12, 2021: Colorado quarterback JT Shrout during University of Colorado football practice. (University of Colorado Athletics)

A quarterback from Tennessee might get the starting nod at Colorado.

A guard from Western Carolina could be the key for the CU men’s basketball team’s hopes for a repeat NCAA Tournament appearance.

And two players plucked from Pac-12 Conference rival Washington might prove to be the missing ingredients as coach JR Payne’s women’s basketball team looks to take the next step after a promising finish this past season.

Welcome to the new world of Division I athletics.

Last week, the NCAA finally approved the long-expected measure to allow all first-time undergraduate transfers immediate eligibility at their new schools. Previously, athletes in men’s and women’s basketball, football, men’s ice hockey, and baseball had been required to sit out a season before resuming competitions with their new teams. That no longer is the case.

Coaches in general aren’t fans of the measure, and CU men’s hoops coach Tad Boyle has on several occasions expressed his trepidation at a college basketball world with unfettered free agency. But here we are. And all coach fears aside, this step was long overdue.

Around 1,400 players in men’s basketball alone have entered the transfer portal this spring. That figure has been uniquely bloated by the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA for the pandemic season of 2020-21. Players who entered the portal like CU seniors D’Shawn Schwartz, Dallas Walton, Jeriah Horne, and Alex Strating would not have had this opportunity in other seasons, and that scenario across the country certainly has inflated the population in the portal.

And, to Boyle’s concern, the free agency scenario is likely to make a much bigger impact on basketball than football. Not that there won’t be more expansive player movement in football, but an unhappy backup at an SEC school, for instance, still is just a play away in an injury-heavy sport from taking over a starting spot. There are nearly three times as many Division I basketball programs as football programs, meaning there are three times as many opportunities, and changing systems isn’t the hurdle in basketball as it is in football. A big-armed quarterback craving more playing time isn’t transferring to Georgia Tech.

If fans embrace the idea there isn’t a perfect system when it comes to transfer policies, then it’s difficult to quibble with an updated system that gives every single collegiate athlete equal freedoms and opportunities.

Coaches being allowed to leave whenever they want for more lucrative contracts, often leaving embittered youngsters behind who had pledged themselves to that coach’s program, is Exhibit A as to why there shouldn’t be transfer restrictions (though, in the case of coaching changes, those restrictions have eased in recent years). Moreover, the NCAA has spent generations grasping desperately to the notion of amateurism, that athletes are no different than their non-sports-playing classmates on campus. Yet at the same time, the football player or basketball player whose programs rake in millions haven’t been allowed to change schools freely while most other athletes, or even regular students, have been free to pursue whatever athletic or academic opportunity catches the eye.

Will it change the game(s)? Sure. But the freedom of transferring won’t be the death knell many fret, even in basketball. The same was said of allowing freshmen varsity eligibility in the 1970s, or even when campuses and athletic programs became racially integrated, yet those moves only strengthened the games. It might make success at mid-major programs more difficult to sustain, but it won’t erase Cinderella stories from the backdrop of the NCAA basketball tournaments. It’s also worth noting the immediate eligibility is only for first-time transfers — a second undergraduate transfer still will require a year on the sideline.

In time, the guess here is the number of free agents in the transfer portal will recalibrate somewhat. The extra year of eligibility has skewered this year’s numbers and eventually, perhaps with a few years worth of evidence, there will be enough examples of the grass not always necessarily being greener in new pastures to force more than a few young athletes to think twice about moving after the first sting of discontentment.

In the meantime, Buffs fans should embrace the arrival of Tennessee quarterback JT Shrout, the addition of Western Carolina hoops transfer Mason Faulkner, and the women’s basketball team making improvements while depleting the depth of a league rival by adding UW transfers Quay Miller and Tameiya Sadler.

Going forward, no doubt more new Buffs-in-key-roles are on the way.