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Coaches indenture athletes unjustly

It’s obvious to anyone who cares enough to look that major college sports are fundamentally unjust. The NCAA rakes in billions of dollars while the players get nothing. Most Division I athletes aren’t even guaranteed a four-year education – tear a ligament or get passed on the depth chart and your scholarship can vanish after a single season.

But ask a bunch of coaches, and they’ll tell you that something else is rotten in college athletics. The problem with NCAA sports, they believe, is that the servants aren’t indentured enough.

Around 450 Division I basketball players have announced they’re changing schools this offseason. This turnover has imperiled the sport, says Marshall coach Tom Herrion, who calls it a “transfer epidemic.” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski says that “kids don’t stick to the school that they pick and they want instant gratification.” South Carolina’s Frank Martin agrees: “Kids are not being taught to stay the course, be patient, to learn how to work and improve.”

Let’s examine what this epidemic looks like. Transfer rates for Division I men’s basketball players have hovered between 9 percent and 11 percent each offseason over the last decade. By comparison, a 2010 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling indicated that 1 in 3 college students transfer during their scholastic careers. The only difference I’m seeing here is that English lit professors aren’t grousing about students running off with their copies of “Moby Dick.”

All of these complaints about impatient, instant-gratification-seeking athletes obscure college sports’ real transfer scandal. The NCAA is America’s worst workplace; at least they pay you a little something at Walmart.

Now, coaches are trying to exert still more control over one of the most highly controlled groups of people in existence. How’s this for a deal: We’re going to call you greedy even though you’re not getting paid, and we’re going to try our hardest to keep you from leaving. One, two, three – team!

Basketball and football coaches might not want to admit it, but college athletes have to pay a penalty for switching schools. Under most circumstances, Division I transfers in football, baseball, men’s ice hockey, and men’s and women’s basketball must sit out a year before they can play again. The NCAA claims this year-off requirement is a result of those sports being “historically academically underperforming.” In practice, that restriction helps suppress player movement in the highest-revenue sports, giving coaches a greater ability to control the inflow and outflow of talent.

Coaches are actually fine with transfers, so long as they’re the ones setting the terms. To manage the NCAA’s scholarship limits – Division I basketball programs can have up to 13 scholarship players; FBS football programs can have 85 – coaches regularly push out the guys at the end of the bench to make way for more-promising talent.

One common tactic is to tell a player that he won’t get any playing time if he sticks around. Even if you appeal losing your scholarship to a body outside the athletic department, schools can’t force a coach to give someone a roster spot.

Loyalty is of absolute importance in top college programs – it’s just up to the coaches to decide who’s supposed to be loyal to whom.

Last year, freshman forward Jarrod Uthoff told Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan that he wanted to leave the team. Ryan, in turn, decreed that he would not give Uthoff permission to contact any university in the Big Ten or the ACC (the conference the Big Ten matches up against in an annual tournament). He also denied Uthoff a release to three additional universities: Marquette, Iowa State and Florida.

So, NCAA coaches have the power to block an athlete from getting a scholarship at an entirely different university. As Greg Bishop detailed in a recent New York Times piece, “if a coach does not grant an athlete a release, the player must forfeit any scholarship opportunity, pay his own way to the new university and sit out the next season.”

These are the perverted values of the NCAA – a player can lose out on a future scholarship because his ex-coach says, essentially, “If I can’t have you, nobody on this list can either.”

Coaches can block a player’s permission to contact for a number of dumb reasons – to prevent a former assistant coach from “poaching” talent, for one – or for no discernible reason at all.

In the case of Uthoff, Ryan clearly wanted to avoid a future matchup with his ex-player, lest he pass along the deepest, darkest secrets of the Badgers’ playbook.

Now, recall that the NCAA’s stated purpose in having transfers sit out a year is to allow them to adjust academically. Clearly, though, the academic rationale behind transfer restrictions is a cover for purely athletic considerations.

After a massive public outcry, Ryan and Wisconsin partly relented, granting Uthoff a release to any university outside the Big Ten.

In the end, the player defied his coach and enrolled at Iowa, forgoing a scholarship so he could go to a Big Ten school because he actually could afford it.

Back in January, a number of media outlets reported that all of these transfer rules could be changing forever. The NCAA was weighing a new proposal that would allow any Division I athlete with a GPA of 2.6 or higher to transfer and be eligible immediately.

Players would gain the power they’ve long been denied.

Almost nobody seems to have noticed that this remarkable proposal quietly died back in April.

So what about the so-called student-athletes, whose playing careers and potential livelihoods are at stake here? Don’t bother asking them what they think. As usual, they have no say at all.

Josh Levin is a columnist for Slate.

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