When it comes to the battle between student-athletes and the NCAA, just about every argument comes back to money.
Should the players receive it? How much and through what means? Through pay-for-play or simply receiving the full value of a scholarship?
As Northwestern players make a push for unionization, however, compensation isn't even a pressing topic—at least not yet. The National College Players Association (NCPA), which teamed up with Wildcats quarterback Kain Colter, outlined 11 goals for players on its website.
Only one of them, raising the amount of the scholarship, involves payment.
The rest of the goals call for better care of student-athletes. That includes lifting transfer restrictions.
From the NCPA website:
10. Guarantee that college athletes are granted an athletic release from their university if they wish to transfer schools.
Schools should not have the power to refuse to release college athletes that choose to transfer. Under NCAA rules, players that transfer without a release not only have to sit out a year, they cannot receive an athletic scholarship for a year. This contradicts the educational mission and principle of sportsmanship that the NCAA is supposed to uphold.
11.Allow college athletes of all sports the ability to transfer schools one time without punishment.
College athletes that participate in football, basketball, baseball, and ice hockey should not be denied the one-time no-penalty transfer option that is afforded to college athletes of other sports. Such a policy is coercive and discriminatory. All college athletes should have this freedom to ensure that they realize their academic, social, and athletic pursuits.
As it stands, schools have the power over the athlete when it comes to permission to contact other programs. In an interview with Bleacher Report, NCAA guru John Infante of AthleticScholarships.net said that's only likely to change with the help of an outside force.
"The pressure is going to have to come from outside, whether it’s a successful unionization that bargains for that, or a successful lawsuit," Infante said. "Or, say, congress gets involved."
If an athlete wishes to transfer, he has to seek permission to contact other schools from the athletic department in a written request. That permission technically comes from the athletic director, although in many cases, the responsibility gets delegated to the head coach.
The current school then has seven days to either approve or deny the request, otherwise, it is automatically approved. If permission to contact is denied, the athlete can file an appeal. That would be heard within 15 days by other university representatives, like members of the faculty senate or director of admissions.
If that appeal is denied, the athlete cannot be recruited or offered a scholarship for the first year by the school(s) in which they are interested in attending.
There is, however, a key difference between transferring and receiving a grant-in-aid to play football.
Technically, there's nothing preventing an athlete from transferring wherever they want. The NCAA and its membership can point to this as evidence that it isn't preventing an athlete from receiving an education.
Former Texas Tech quarterback Baker Mayfield, for example, was denied permission to contact Oklahoma and lost his appeal to do so. Still, the walk-on transferred to Oklahoma anyway without a football scholarship. Since he did not receive a one-time transfer exemption, Mayfield will have to sit out a season to satisfy NCAA rules and loses a year of eligibility to satisfy Big 12 intra-conference transfer rules. He will be eligible to play as a junior in 2015.
The larger question is whether athletes should have to abide by university-placed restrictions, especially since coaches are free to come and go as they please.
"That’s led to the idea that perhaps the NCAA should be more involved," Infante said. "The NCAA could say if a school wants to restrict anything outside its conference or schedule, then there better be evidence of tampering or improper recruiting."
The odds of that happening on a consistent basis aren't promising.
With as much flak as the NCAA catches, it can be easy to forget that it's an entity the sum of its membership. Legislation for items like recruiting deregulation and additional stipends for athletes ultimately went back to the drawing board because of disagreements among members.
And members are largely in control of the transfer process now. Hence, it would likely take a major force, like unionization, for change to occur.
"If we’re assuming unionization is successful and there’s collective bargaining, I think [transfers are] something you might see a school more likely to give on," Infante explained, "especially if athletes are fighting for something with a dollar amount attached to it.
"Even if that became a central issue, the fight might be to restrict a school’s ability to impose restrictions rather than have a free-for-all."
While there's no free-for-all in transferring, Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated wrote last month that there has been an increase in quarterback transfers, and many are eligible to play immediately.
The term "free agent" has been liberally attached to recent grad transfers like former USC quarterback Max Wittek. As Infante wrote on the Bylaw Blog in January, that's not an accurate term.
Like all other transfers, graduate transfers need permission to contact another institution. If a coach denies permission to contact and it is upheld on appeal, the athlete cannot accept an athletic scholarship at a potential transfer destination.
A recent example of this involves another Texas Tech quarterback, Michael Brewer. The redshirt sophomore is on track to graduate this spring and will transfer to Virginia Tech—but only because Texas Tech allowed it.
Brewer originally wanted to transfer to either TCU or Texas, citing academic reasons. However, it's no secret that the Horned Frogs and the Longhorns have quarterback questions. Not surprisingly, Tech denied Brewer's permission to contact those schools as well as his appeal.
Even with the NCAA closely examining a new governance model that would give autonomy to the five power conferences—the ACC, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12 and the SEC—transfer rules would likely be untouched, according to Infante.
"The autonomy of the so-called 'Power Five' is going to be limited on certain topics, and transfer rules will likely be voted on in a similar process as it is now," Infante said.
Regardless of how the NCAA is eventually structured, transfer rules remain the prerogative of its membership. If athletes want that to change, they'll need to force the issue themselves.
Ben Kercheval is the lead writer for college football. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.