Is College Football Developing an Underground Free Agency Market?


Welcome to the modern era of college football: a sport run by the NCAA, a multi-billion dollar conglomerate who’s mission statement is predicated on the innocence and purity of collegiate athletics. Yet, despite this cornerstone “principle”, the association allows for dozens of college football players to try to find new teams each off-season.

In this “amateur” sport, college football teams are able to go shopping to find replacements for players who have exhausted their eligibility. For example, Cal Berkeley’s Golden Bears lost quarterback Jared Goff to the NFL Draft and… pooof! A starting quarterback appears in the form of Davis Webb, a highly regarded gunslinger from Texas Tech. This isn’t a rare occurence, its an institutional practice; by my estimation, 29 quarterbacks transferred into a new school this year alone.

There are many aspects of the NCAA and college football that place its “amateur” status in question, including this relatively new phenomenon of transfer players.

According to the NCAA, “amateurism” is the bedrock of the existence of college sports. “Amateurism,” a concept that has essentially created it’s own jurisprudence, has been defined by the NCAA as a list of things that student-athletes cannot do.

“Student-athletes may not: 

(1) Contracts signed with professional teams;

(2) Salary for participating in athletics;

(3) Prize money above actual and necessary expenses;

(4) Play their sport with professionals (?); 

(5) Tryout, practice, or compete with a professional team; 

(6) Accept benefits from an agent or prospective agent;

(7) Sign an agreement to be represented by an agent; 

(8) Delay initial full-time collegiate enrollment to participate in competition.”

As evidenced by its 400+ page rulebook, the NCAA is extremely regulatory. Every Division I NCAA program has a compliance department whose job it is to attempt to adhere to the association’s promulgations (which even the major organizations are not good at). What is particularly interesting about the NCAA’s definition of amateurism is that it does not define amateurism; rather, it merely states what conduct invalidates amateurism. For all of the NCAA’s regulations and the seriousness to which they purport to apply their rules, the college football transfer process illuminates what little control they actually exercise.

Here is how the transfer process works: If a football player wants to transfer from his current school, he may either seek a release from his scholarship (which then requires a one-year waiting period before he is allowed to play) or attempt a “graduate transfer.” This loophole allows players to seek a new school to play for while seeking a graduate degree; the new institution must have a graduate program that is not offered by the player’s old school, and the player must have remaining NCAA eligibility.

This causes yet another issue with a player’s “amateurism” designation. For this entire process to take place, a player needs to first find a new home. The NCAA leaves it up to the player to reach out and contact coaches at other institutions. Aside from being an arduous task, this is problematic and antithetical to the NCAA’s amateurism principle, as they are requiring a process that would be much better navigated by an agent. Agents, however, are banned by the NCAA, and the player  —  who is between 18–22 years old  —  is forced to act as his own agent.

If the NCAA does not address these rules, the following could occur: after each season there will be a massive pool of transfer players available to teams. And, teams who (as we have seen with traditional recruiting of high school players) will engage in the same sort of nefarious, non-amateur activity the NCAA seeks to prevent: bribing and incentivizing players.

At the very least, I have to wonder what smaller NCAA teams feel about this trend. These schools could end up becoming feeder programs to larger schools, in the same vein as junior colleges and prep schools. This could cripple smaller schools, as institutions like Alabama and Oregon could raid them of talent on a yearly basis. For example, the University of Purdue lost two transfer quarterbacks this off-season. Their destination? LSU and the University of Florida.

It will be interesting to see how the NCAA addresses this issue, if they do at all.

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