Is the NCAA transfer portal getting out of control?

Is the NCAA transfer portal getting out of control?

According to the Transfer Portal For Playing Time, the NCAA men’s basketball transfer portal has set a new record for the most D-I and D-II entries in the first four days, with more than 1,015 players putting their name in thus far. For comparison, it took six days longer to surpass 1,000 entries in 2022.

The transfer portal has created a period of unprecedented player movement across the NCAA.

On "The Collision: Where Sports And Politics Collide,” me and my co-host Dave Zirin did a deep dive into the transfer portal and what this means for college basketball going forward.

Dave Zirin: I heard your former coach, Jim Boeheim, discuss some of the things that have changed the dynamics of college basketball. He discussed NIL and the transfer portal. Has it surprised you how quickly the power dynamics have shifted in college hoops?

Etan Thomas: Interesting. I was actually just listening to Coach Boeheim discuss this on the radio with Jay Williams and Keyshawn Johnson this morning after I dropped my kids off at school. For me, as far as the transfer portal (goes), I’m kind of torn on this topic, to be honest.

Dave: I am as well. I'm very torn, but please continue.

Etan: So, on one hand, players now have flexibility and I think it’s important for players to have that flexibility to move to a different situation if the situation they are currently in is not the best for them. So, I’m definitely all for that. In addition, from a players perspective, you’re no longer… how can I say this... held captive. I don’t want to use that strong of a phrase and, of course, this is in a basketball sense — don’t take this literal, please.

Dave: I understand what you’re saying.

Etan: Yeah, so I just want to make that point clear. But in the past, no matter how bad the situation was for you, from a player’s perspective, you were almost forced to deal with it because [the] repercussion or punishment for transferring would be that you had to sit out an entire year and lose that year of eligibility. And that is a lot; you had to really be unhappy in your situation to give up an entire year. Now, it’s different. Players now have the flexibility to leave if the situation is not good for them and I’m all for that, in theory.

Now, from a coaching standpoint — and this was Coach Boeheim’s point this morning — how do you build a team with that reality, [when] you have half of your team leaving every year? And I understand that issue. But should players have the flexibility to leave? I think so. I mean, coaches have the flexibility to leave anytime they get a better opportunity somewhere. I always thought — and this was way before the transfer portal was even a reality — but I thought that if your coach left, you should have the right to leave without having to sit out a year. I think that should’ve been a rule anyway.

Dave: I definitely agree with that. I mean, that definitely seems fair for so many reasons.

Etan: Right. But at the same time, when you look at the transfer portal now, it just opened up and in, what, 3 days you have over 1,000 players who want to transfer? That’s a lot, so that’s why I’m torn on this topic.

Dave: Whew. I too am very torn on this. So, on the one hand, the checkmate argument in favor of the transfer portal is exactly what you just said: coaches can leave, so why can’t players? Coaches don’t have to sit out a year, so why should players? Coaches can pursue the best opportunities for themselves and for their families, so why can’t the players make similar choices in that regard? That, to me, is the most checkmate of all checkmate arguments. But, there is another side to it, and you can’t deny this other side. You know, you actually end up sometimes losing arguments when you don’t grant that the other side has a point.

Etan: That’s very true because then you look unreasonable. It’s okay to say, "I agree with you here, but this is where I have a different perspective."

Dave: Right, so the thing that I really don’t like about the transfer portal is: I think there is actual value in team sports of fighting your way forward, of being the person freshman year who had to bust their hump to start sophomore year. And if you’re that unhappy that you want to leave, I don’t mind there being a high bar for that level of unhappiness. Listen, we all know how this situation works, and we all know that young people can be a tad impulsive. So, I like the idea of there being guard rails for when players make these decisions to consider, "Okay, do you really want to leave? Is it really that bad? Or are you just having a really bad week or month? Is this something you can persevere through?"

Now, with that being said, and I have to point him out because he has been the most honest about it: Deion Sanders walks in at the University of Colorado, addresses his players in full view of the cameras and says something to the effect of, “Yeah, a third of you won’t be here next year." And it’s like, you’re talking to scholarship athletes in their teens and are basically telling them, "Hey, that class you’re taking that you really like or your girlfriend that you’re thinking of possibly proposing to in a few years or that frat you just rushed, well good luck because those life plans are out the window! Because I’m the new coach and I’m in charge." And that doesn’t seem very fair because if you’re offered a scholarship, that should mean something."

Etan: Yeah, but people still have to understand that it is a year-to-year agreement. My wife gets tired of me using her as an example, but it’s what happened to her after she tore her ACL for the third time while she was playing at Syracuse. The doctors told my wife (who was my girlfriend at the time), Nichole Oliver, if she wanted to be able to run around and play with her children when she was in her 30s, she would have to stop playing, and the coaches tried to take her scholarship away.

Her and her mother actually had to get a lawyer and meet with the Athletic Director and threaten legal action and a ton of bad publicity for the university if they did that. And here’s the thing, Dave: every time I tell this story, we get multiple messages from parents or players asking for advice because their university is trying to do that very same thing to them.

Dave: Wow, that’s awful.

Etan: Right, it's terrible. So, people do have to put stories like that into consideration. But it’s an example of how all of the power was always leaning to the side of the colleges, and I never liked that dynamic. But again, like we said earlier: there a thousand players in the transfer portal right now!

So, what I would say is I think they should come up with a rule that you get one transfer, so make it a good one because you only get one. You have some players you see now and this is their third transfer and their third different college, and their just a junior! I’m not sure if that’s good either. So, that’s why I’m torn on this topic.

Dave: I really like that idea. Thinking of my own child, if my son went to a university and the coach was super intense about recruiting him and then day one on campus, the coach leaves, [that changes things]. Here is my son as a freshman and he has to deal with the fact that he has to either [transfer] or find peace with the new coach who may or may not even value him as a player. He may not be a player he wants to play and he has no connection to him because he never recruited him, so why would he stay there?

Etan: I agree, 100%. So in my scenario, if you only get one transfer, that’s like the exception. If your coach leaves, that doesn’t count against your one transfer because, yes, that changes everything for an athlete.

Dave: Ah, I like that too because the new coach could have a completely different idea of what they want to do from what you were promised when they recruited you there.

Etan: I agree. But with that being said, I do have to be able to acknowledge — and this is what Coach Boeheim brought up today on the radio — if he was still coaching now, he would be chasing players to see who is going to stay and who is going to leave, and it’s a musical chairs type of thing now. You lose four players, you replace them with four new players. But how can a coach actually coach players? If they don’t like anything, they just leave! Well, I can see that both ways. If you’re being brutally unfair to someone, yes, they’re probably going to leave because you can no longer hold them captive. Some coaches call it “coaching a player hard," but I don’t like that term because Bobby Knight in his mind thought that’s what he was doing when it was actually abuse. So, a coach can no longer do that and hold a player captive anymore, and that’s a good thing, in my opinion.

But now the other side, and this is the part that Coach Boeheim brought up, sometimes it’s simply not your turn yet. So I look at myself: my freshman year at Syracuse, it just wasn’t my turn yet. I was playing behind a more experienced, bigger, stronger and, quite frankly, better senior center in Otis Hill, who had just been to the NCAA Finals the year before, so I had to be patient. And, of course, it was hard because I was at the bottom of the totem pole on the team. But when I came back my sophomore year, I was ready and prepared to step in as a starter, got back-to-back Big East Defensive Player of the Year and things turned around for me. But I had to wait, so I know firsthand that a bad situation can definitely change.

Dave: If they had the transfer portal your freshman year, would you have stayed?

Etan: Listen, I was almost going to transfer even without them having the transfer portal how it is now (laughing). But looking back now, I’m glad I didn’t make that decision. But I was very close to doing it because it was not a good environment and situation for me in my freshman year.

Coach Boeheim also used the example of Hakim Warrick, who didn’t play a whole lot in his freshman year but then came back his sophomore year and blocked the shot against Kansas in the championship game that really won the game for Syracuse. So his point is that things can change, and he’s right. So, there is an argument to be made that some players are losing the lessons of perseverance, fighting through adversity, etc. because at any hint of difficulty, they transfer. But at the same time, there’s the question of should they be able to have the flexibility and the choice to leave a situation they are unhappy in? So, that’s why this is a complex topic.

Dave: Very complex indeed.

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