SOMETHING OF A seismic ripple reverberated through the college sportsphere last week. Word got out that the NCAA was considering a proposal that would allow athletes who met an unstated academic standard to play immediately after transferring. A pearl-clutching chorus instantly began its scales. "It would be the worst rule ever," Baylor basketball coach Scott Drew told ESPN. Indiana coach Archie Miller told Scout.com that the proposal "would cripple teams and programs." Critics on social media fretted that the rule would ruin college athletics as we know them. So what?
There is nothing inherently natural or virtuous in the NCAA's heavily regulated model of collegiate athletic amateurism. It exists virtually nowhere outside the United States; ball-playing prodigies in Europe, like student prodigies of all other stripes stateside, are typically funneled into specialized academies and free to, say, profit from the image of their own faces. That this model exists in the States is a perversely fitting example of American business and legal ingenuity. The NCAA invented the term "student-athlete" in the 1950s as a trapdoor through which to escape workers' comp liability. Before then, the distinctions between athlete and employee had been murky. Afterward, a distinct and unusual dynamic was codified: Athletes were students with an employee's restrictions of conduct and movement, and employees with a student's salary—none.
All the byzantine NCAA rulebook and sanction high jinxs since have worked backward from this premise to justify the term's meaning, and thus the "sanctity" of college amateurism. (Pray tell, whose Olympic enjoyment has been sullied by Usain Bolt's posing for Puma?) Even as they earned increasing millions for their schools (aka employers), "student-athletes" struggled to assert labor rights because so many in the stands and in the media have accepted the notion that they are somehow not labor. Once upon a time the argument that a free education was ample compensation for suiting up provided cover, but as major college sports ballooned from earnest interscholastic competition to behemoth business inking billion-dollar TV deals, that rationalization went from convenient to delusional.
It has become increasingly difficult to justify why the most financially valuable students in the student body are the ones least free to leverage their worth. Their coaches and athletic directors often rake in lavish salaries; their classmates can earn money working in their own fields of expertise and change schools without restriction. And, of course, their coaches are free to chase bigger paydays. But student transfers sitting out a full year before gaining eligibility is somehow held up as a pillar of college athletics. If the NCAA means what it says when it emphasizes that its athletes are students, then the least it can do is afford them the same agency as other students, especially if there are academic requirements attached. And if athletes are not like other students, well, that opens the door to questions the NCAA would rather not be asked.
Changing the transfer rule would have repercussions. Rosters would churn. Big-name schools could raid smaller ones. Mid-major Cinderellas may become rarer. Frustrated underclassmen might pack up when staying would be better for their long-term development. But such are the costs of fairness. And if the honest treatment of your industry's labor undermines your system, the problem is not with the treatment. It's with the system.
It has become increasingly difficult to justify why the most financially valuable students are the ones least free to leverage their worth.