Today, Steve Alford announced that he will be leaving the University of New Mexico to become the head coach of the UCLA Bruins. The move seems like a no-brainer, until you remember that just last week he signed a letter of agreement (not the official document) for a 10-year extension as head coach of the Lobos.
Now, nobody can fault a guy for jumping at a golden opportunity that he has rightfully earned -- there's no question that the UCLA job is one of the best in college basketball. But certainly there's something cold about pledging a long-term commitment only to rescind it just days later. It's the same reason why so many fans and coaches hate the system of verbal commitments in college athletics. However, it's not even the University of New Mexico that people are sympathizing with -- it's the players who Alford will be leaving behind.
The immediate reaction from the media centered upon the idea that the players are the real victims in these situations -- that young men are forced to fulfill an obligation that has changed from what they originally signed up for. Sure, they have an out and can leave if they want, but if they opt to play for another program, they have to sit out idly for a year as "punishment". This surely isn't fair, right?
Wrong. Last time I checked, the NCAA website states: "founded more than one hundred years ago as a way to protect student-athletes, the NCAA continues to implement that principle with increased emphasis on both athletics and academic excellence." -- Note: athletics AND academic excellence.
More from the NCAA website:
"Student-athletes who transfer are less likely to earn a degree than those who remain at their original institution [...] data show that transferring has a negative impact on a student-athlete’s academic success and eventual graduation."
So the NCAA is actually looking out for the best interests of its players by placing stipulations on transfers -- it benefits them academically. As we know, most college athletes are going pro in something other than sports, and these high-school kids are supposed to be committing to schools, not coaches or even athletic programs. Admittedly, many recruits don't place as much emphasis upon academics as they should, and coaches often play a bigger role in athletes choosing particular schools than do educational offerings. But that does not mean that the NCAA should suddenly throw out academic ideals just because some student-athletes don't have their priorities straight. The NCAA has made it very clear to them that school is important.
There's also the fact that not allowing stipulation-free transfers after coaching changes protects the NCAA as well, mainly from a lot of bad press. For example, pretend that all of the current New Mexico players could transfer anywhere they want right now and play next year without sitting out -- where would they prefer to play? Most of the players who would leave New Mexico would likely wish to follow Alford to UCLA -- but the reality is that he may no longer want them.
UCLA is a step up from New Mexico in terms of facilities, exposure, budget, and yes, talent. So rather than Alford being forced to cruelly turn down his old players (because he now has way more talent at his disposal), causing controversy about how "he doesn't care about the young men in his program" or heartbreak for those players, he can simply leave knowing they won't try to follow him due to the one year waiting period. Is it pretty or honorable? No, but it's an easier out for everyone involved.
Certainly it would be exciting if college players could transfer without repercussions after coaching changes -- we would have a college version of free agency after every season that the media and fans could go crazy about -- it's wonderful sports drama. However, that would further commodify student-athletes for just their physical abilities, and we all should be very skeptical about heading down that path.
Now the NCAA is far from perfect, but transfer restrictions are something that it has right. Keeping academics and graduation success a priority is of utmost importance, and the transfer rules also save us from further descending down the slippery slope between college athletics and professional leagues. While many people get upset when a coach moves on, allowing more people to abandon ship without repercussions won't solve anything. I hope the NCAA stands pat with the transfer restrictions moving forward, and I expect it will. After all, they were put there for a reason.