The NCAA is examining transfer rules after a spate of high-profile cases that has critics saying too much power is in the hands of athletic directors and coaches.
The issue came to the forefront in men's basketball over the winter when 7-foot center Todd O'Brien went public with St. Joseph coach Phil Martelli's decision to block his transfer to UAB. Neither Martelli nor school officials have said why.
Elsewhere, Jarrod Uthoff said he had restrictions placed on where he could transfer by Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan before he was allowed to go anywhere outside the Big Ten Conference. Florida International's Dominique Ferguson said he was flatly denied when he requested a scholarship release following the firing of coach Isiah Thomas, and he declared for the NBA draft rather than go back to FIU.
Forty percent of students who play men's Division I basketball transfer before they are juniors — that's more than 400 a year, the highest rate of any sport, according to National Association of Basketball Coaches executive director Jim Haney.
In all but a handful of cases, he said, releases are granted. Typically, athletes aren't allowed to transfer within the same conference or to a school that is a regular nonconference opponent because it could put the school he's leaving at a competitive disadvantage.
"I don't even like those kinds of restrictions," sports attorney Don Jackson said, "but at least there is some rational basis to them."
Once a release is granted, a transferring student in football, basketball, men's ice hockey and baseball must sit out one year before becoming eligible at a new school. There is no one-year waiting period in other sports.
If a player is barred from transferring to a particular school, he can still go there without a scholarship. That's not practical, or possible, for many players. An athlete whose release is denied can appeal to a committee at his school that is outside the athletic department and to the NCAA itself.
NCAA President Mark Emmert has said something should be done to make transfer rules less onerous for athletes.
"My biggest concern though, frankly, isn't the optics of it but whether it's fair or not to the young men and young women," he said in February. "What's the rationale for constraining someone to move from school to school?"
NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn wrote in an email to The Associated Press that NCAA schools are "currently evaluating the rule structure with the goal of simplifying the rules. The transfer rules will be examined as a part of this process."
Jackson says it just might take an act of Congress to make it so athletes can move freely from one school to another. Fellow sports attorney Christian Dennie predicted that the issue "will be a topic of discussion for the next 10 years."
Jackson said he doubted NCAA members would rush to make meaningful changes to rules that tilt in their favor.
Transfer requests are scrutinized more by coaches now because of the possible effect they can have on a program's APR, Haney said. A program is dinged a "retention point" under Academic Progress Rate rules if the departing player does not have a grade-point average of 2.6. Low overall APR scores can jeopardize a program's postseason eligibility.
An advocacy group, the National College Players Association, has begun a push to get state legislatures to force the issue.
The most progress has been made in California, where the Senate Education Committee last month passed a so-called "Student-Athlete Bill of Rights." The bill, which addresses myriad issues, would require state colleges and universities to "approve without delay a student-athlete's request for transfer to another institution of higher education without imposing restrictions or conditions."
Dennie, a Fort Worth, Texas, attorney who regularly represents athletes and institutions on NCAA matters, said he doubted a state statute would stand up to a legal challenge by the NCAA. Short of NCAA members changing the rules, Jackson said his hope would be for Congress to pass a student-athlete welfare act that would force NCAA schools to apply transfer rules uniformly.
As it is, he said, a coach can deny a transfer out of vengeance or without giving any reason.
Jackson said he considered asking for an injunction against the NCAA that would have allowed O'Brien to play for UAB this past season. But Jackson decided against it because UAB's administration feared any wins in which O'Brien participated would have to be forfeited if the NCAA prevailed. Dennie said he's never taken a transfer case to court because the chances of winning are slim.
Coaches have argued that the time and financial resources they put into recruiting and developing players should give them the right to block certain transfers. They also say some schools tamper with players and that coaches can counter the hijinks by blocking a transfer.
Meanwhile, athletes on one-year renewable scholarships say they are liable to get run off if they underperform athletically. They point to regular students who are allowed to move from one school to the next and accept a scholarship from their new school.
O'Brien, the former St. Joseph's player, had hoped to take advantage of the NCAA transfer rule that allows an athlete to compete immediately if he goes to a school that offers a graduate program not available at his original school.
All he needed was a signed release from St. Joseph's and he would have been in uniform for UAB last season. He said he never got the signature or an explanation.
He said he's getting on with life. He paid his own way to UAB and started work on his master's degree in public administration. He practiced with the Blazers and sat on the bench in his warm-up suit at home games.
O'Brien has hired an agent and is working out this summer with old teammates from St. Joseph's with the hope of playing professional basketball overseas.
"I'll always have a grudge with St. Joseph's and the NCAA," he said from his home in New Holland, Pa. "I'm not actively out trying to do anything about it. I'm just worried about bettering my future."
Of course, he's a strong supporter of any measure that frees athletes to move from one school to another.
"I hope they fix some of the transfer rules," he said, "and prevent any student from being held hostage like I was."