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The hyphen will not hold

A useful interloper.
A useful interloper.

It's May, that wonderful time of year when college basketball pundits grasp for anything resembling a commentary topic. Currently, that topic is the perceived explosion in the number of players transferring between schools. Example:

Transfers have increasingly become a fundamental part of the NCAA experience, so much so that coaches rarely escape a year without losing at least one underclassman looking for a fresh start. It's such a prevalent part of building rosters now that some programs market themselves as a place for transfers to land, and those coaches focus their recruiting efforts on landing players the second time around.

Few in college athletics, however, believe this is a positive trend. Most transfers happen because a player is dissatisfied, an acknowledgement of failure on the part of the coach or player. And though football sees its share of players changing programs every year, the problem is becoming especially visible in college basketball, where more than 400 players — an average of more than one per Div. 1 program — have already switched schools this offseason.

(HTs: Gasaway and Beyond the Arc)

Now, as it turns out, players aren't actually transferring at an increasing rate, at least from power conference teams:

Players leaving with eligibility left (excluding NBA draft early entrants)

2004: 174
2005: 197
2006: 185
2007: 192
2008: 160
2009: 137
2010: 203
2011: 165
2012: 113 (through April 30th)

My theory as to the gap between perception and reality here: the large number of high-profile transfers of late, primarily due to the NCAA's fifth-year transfer rule. When the guy sitting at the end of the bench leaves for a new school, it's a footnote. When starters move to new schools, people notice. This offseason has seen Alex Oriakhi transfer to Missouri (because of UConn's postseason ban), Xavier guard Mark Lyons follow his former coach to Arizona, and Kentucky add the services of former Wright State sharpshooter Julius Mays.

MSU fans have experienced the on-court/field implications of the fifth-year transfer rule from both perspectives: While Brandon Wood wasn't the "best player at Michigan State," he was probably the difference between hanging a Big Ten basketball title banner and not. On the flip side, if the rule didn't exist, Russell Wilson doesn't matriculate in Madison for a year and the 2011 MSU football team may well be wearing Rose Bowl rings.

Given all that, Mr. Rexrode offered his take on the rule yesterday:

It’s time for this loophole to be sealed. Now. Yesterday. It’s so misguided, the SEC banned its schools from accepting such transfers a year ago.

So not only has this rule essentially brought free agency to college sports, it has managed to make the SEC look progressive. Impressive!

Coaches are trying to kill the rule, which actually was enacted in 2005 and tweaked to its current form in 2007 — just not exploited to the point of abuse until the past couple years. The National Association of Basketball Coaches met Thursday with NCAA President Mark Emmert and discussed the restriction of transfers, according to ESPN.

I don't necessarily think there's a neat solution here. This is where that cute little NCAA euphemism runs into a wall: Which half of the term "student-athlete" trumps the other? If it's "student," then why shouldn't a player who has fulfilled all his academic obligations at the undergraduate level have the freedom to move on to a new educational institution? If it's "athlete," then the NCAA should absolutely look to maintain competitive balance, enforce the penalty for breaking the contract the player signed with his team, and avoid a situation that basically looks like a free agency hunt (a part of professional sports many fans still find unseemly).

There is, of course, a much larger tension between the words on either end of that hyphen: You can't have tens of millions of dollars hanging on the right side of the hyphen with the weight of the amateur ideal perched on the left, without the construction breaking in half at some point. The fifth-year transfer issue is a relatively small piece of the puzzle--which is why I would leave the rule as is. If a coach can effectively walk away from his contract to pursue a better opportunity at any time, I can't get too worked up about a kid who finishes his degree earning the right to do the same.

Long term, there will be much bigger cracks in the infrastructure. At some point, the scales will tip inexorably one way or the other. Call me a cynic, but my bet is that money wins out over principle. There's definitely no neat solution for the broader scheme: All of us who are more than eager to turn our money over to university athletic departments (including this guy, who recently rejoined the ranks of MSU football season ticket holders) shouldn't be too shocked when some of that money (or even just some externally-generated money) starts to show up in the hands of the athletes making it possible. Never mind whether the athletes "deserve" it or whether the current uses of the funds are worthy, the current arrangement is simply not economically sustainable.

So, before this piece spins further out of control, I'll sum up: May is not the time to talk about college sports. (And, on the bright side, this commentary on NCAA transfer policies came with more than one sentence per paragraph.)