Fixing the college basketball transfer ‘epidemic’

Google "college basketball transfer epidemic" and you'll get pages of hits. And it's not just bloggers who are writing about this, it's the biggest names in the game: Jon Rothstein, Seth Davis, Jeff Goodman, Matt Norlander, Luke Winn.

And except for a few cases it's inevitably presented as a problem.

So first, what are the numbers? For the past decade the NCAA transfer rate has held steady at 10-10.7%. This year there is a slight uptick to around 12%. So yes, there are more, and yes, it's only one year of data. People who make snap judgments based on one data point generally are people who make a lot of bad predictions, but we'll put that aside. We'll say that there are a lot of college basketball transfers, and agree that this year there are more than usual.

The more important part is that it's a "problem." Here's how Jeff Goodman described it at CBS: "Kids want instant gratification. If they aren't happy with their playing time or overall situation, the initial instinct is to bolt and go elsewhere. It's not just bound to college basketball players; it's an issue in the high school ranks and isn't limited to athletics, either. It's become a societal problem."

The first thing that jumps out is that he terms it a "societal problem" that people who aren't happy with their situation want to go elsewhere.

The second thing is that he's clearly focusing on the players – this is their fault.

Later in the article he states his solution: "If that's the case, I still say to keep it a steadfast rule: You leave, you sit a year. No matter what." And this sentiment is echoed widely.

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Today is Labor Day. College basketball is a business. So how about some of the other actors in this drama? One anonymous coach stated that the solution was to "reduce the number of scholarships down from 13 and there will be less kids leaving. Too much instant gratification these days to keep 13 kids happy when you can only play five at a time." So that coach thinks the right thing to fix this epidemic would be to reduce the number of kids who are able to use athletics as a way to get an education. It's not the stars that are going to come up short on the scholarship stick. It's the kids on the other end of the spectrum.  Why don't we make it harder for future professional basketball players to transfer by taking away scholarships from the fringe players who most need them? Clearly, that coaches' priorities are in the right place.

What if that coach wants to go? What if that coach – in the words of Jeff Goodman – isn't happy with his overall situation and goes elsewhere? Do we need rules to stop that? Or the executives at ESPN and CBS who are signing multi-billion dollar contracts for the rights to broadcast these games, what if they want to go elsewhere? How about an athletic director? Why aren't we stopping their moves? How about writers?

Instead, it's the labor which generates the industry which we focus on. They're the problem. We have this gargantuan machine called college basketball which feeds on money, and when the labor gets uppity it ruffles the curtain of "amateurism," and the presence of that curtain is essential to the free flow of cash.

These kids play in arenas packed with screaming fans. Their every move is documented on television. They're the reason we tune in. They're the reason that the money machine is getting fed. And what do they get? Free books, free classes, free room and board. Which is great, until you compare that slice to the overall pie. And yet, they're the ones who are the problem?

In lieu of actual of actual payment, the other thing they get is a few years to participate in the glory. They make a spin move and 12,000 people cheer. It's seductive. It's alluring. And so they want to go somewhere where they might find more of that, and suddenly we have a problem. Coach Krzyzewski, who is as outspoken on this issue as any coach, landed the highest profile transfer this offseason in Rodney Hood. Did Rodney Hood force himself on Duke?

So maybe it's time we stop thinking of this as a problem, and start thinking of it as a symptom. As a society we profess to care about unfettered markets, about open access and equality of opportunity. But why don't we put our money where our mouths are?