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The Wild, Wild West… College Basketball Style

By David Rogers. BLOWING ROCK, N.C. — History often repeats itself and not necessarily in a good way.

Perspective

Back in 1889, the U.S. Congress authorized President Benjamin Harrison to proclaim a two-million-acre area in Oklahoma as “open for settlement.” It set the stage for what became the Oklahoma Land Rush in which settlers could claim 160 acres of otherwise public land and gain legal title to it if they met certain conditions.

There were few rules. Settlement of the long-withheld lands of Indian Territory prompted all manner of prospective settlers to hitch their teams to wagons, load their families and worldly goods, or saddle their fastest horses. Large accumulations of would-be settlers were chomping at the proverbial bit to claim ownership of the land, once permitted. Then, on April 22, 1889, permission to enter the region was granted. More than 50,000 people rushed in, aiming to claim for themselves 160 acres of what had been dubbed, “Unassigned Lands.”

From the outside, it looked to be more chaotic than an organized way to transfer ownership of real estate. Besides the Native Americans being pushed aside, there were many cases of settlers sneaking into the region ahead of the event’s official date, all to get a head start in claiming prime parcels. Not surprisingly, greed also proved a catalyst for claim jumping and often violence. It is a short calculation to understand that demand outweighed supply in a big way: two million acres divided by 160 means that only 12,500 parcels were available. From the outset, a large majority of those 50,000 settlers were destined to come away empty handed.

As the Oklahoma Historical Society puts it, “April 22, 1889, was a day of chaos, excitement and utter confusion.”

A Modern-Day ‘Rush’

Only a few years ago there was a vigorous debate on university campuses: Should student athletes be compensated for their talents and services beyond a college scholarship?

Critics pointed to the multi-billion-dollar industry that had become college athletics, particularly in football and men’s basketball, suggesting that creating wealth on the backs of student athletes — with restrictions on what they could and could not do — was simply unfair. A college scholarship, whether full or partial, was simply not enough when the student athlete was contributing to the enrichment of the institutions and their administrators, including the coaches in so many cases.

Should there be limits to player (and school) greed?

Fast forward and college athletics have become the “Wild Wild West,” in some ways similar to the Oklahoma Land Rush of yesteryear with nothing in the way of real rules. By some reports, more than 3,000 players were in the college basketball transfer portal by the May 1 deadline.

At the deadline for athletes to enter their names in the portal, only four of the 362 NCAA Division I colleges and universities did NOT have one or more players enter the portal. Not surprisingly, Army and Navy were two of those institutions with probable military commitments tied to each player’s education. The other two schools were Kansas and Marquette.

Making Sense of Chaos

It is hard to make sense of the current chaotic environment for player recruitment and retention. Players are likely to enter the portal with hopes of cashing in on a recent good season, getting paid by a new school. Maybe they are motivated by the promise for more playing time. Some make a move for a perceived higher profile stage to play on: a better-known basketball school with a history of sending players to the NBA or, in the case of football, to the NFL. Still others might want to spend a year playing closer to their hometown.

For certain, there is little sense of loyalty to team chemistry or last season’s accomplishments:

  • Duke made the Elite Eight of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championships and still had seven players enter the transfer portal.
  • Illinois won the Big 10 and made the Elite Eight, but their roster for 2024-25 is a turnstile, with six players entering the portal and going other places (Indiana, West Virginia [2], Memphis, and two uncommitted as of this date) and five newcomers for next season (from Arizona, Louisville, Evansville, Notre Dame and Mercer).
  • Auburn won the SEC but one of its top young guards is transferring to in-state rival Alabama.
  • Appalachian State had an historic season, winning a school record 27 games and the Sun Belt Conference regular season title before losing in the semifinals of the conference tournament. Almost immediately, eight players (including five of the highest profile athletes in the Mountaineers’ 2023-24 nine-man rotation entered the transfer portal.

And these are just a few of a myriad number of similar stories.

Research and analysis of High Country Sports suggests there are four contributing NCAA developments over the recent past serving to make the current environment uncharted — and some say “nonsensical” — territory:

  • The creation of the Transfer Portal, facilitating the process by which student athletes can transfer schools.
  • The approval of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) compensation. In short, student athletes can now get paid.
  • Removing the requirement for a student athlete to sit out a year after transferring.
  • And finally, allowing the student athlete to transfer as many times as he or she wants during their years of college eligibility.

And by modifying the “red shirt” eligibility criteria and liberalizing “medical red shirts,” the NCAA effectively extended those years of eligibility.

Common $en$e?

Today, relatively few people argue with the idea that student athletes should be able to receive compensation that goes beyond the traditional scholarship, including room and board. Especially football, basketball, and baseball have become popular entertainment channels for alumni, sponsors, students and fans of either the school or the sport. It is big business drama and the players are the actors, often simultaneously perceived as both heroes and villains.

So while NIL seems like a natural fit for getting that compensation element accomplished, where today’s environment started to get crazy is when integrating NIL with the other three developments, which are all related to a student athlete’s ability to transfer schools in addition to getting paid.

As one NCAA Division I basketball coach noted recently, “There are more reasons to transfer today than there are to stay at the school that first signed you. The obvious temptations to transfer are money, playing time, level of play (the exposure in playing at a higher profile program), and playing closer to home.”

Help From Modern Technology?

The Transfer Portal was introduced by the NCAA in 2018 as a compliance tool to help bring student athletes (wanting to transfer) together with programs wanting to recruit new players to their respective rosters, to help them find each other more readily by taking advantage of modern digital technology via the Internet. Part of the public intrigue about the Portal stems from up-to-date information not generally being accessible by the media or everyday people. Of course, that hasn’t stopped some enterprising outlets from maintaining transfer portal boards, even if the information they post on those boards is often late or incomplete.

But…

By itself, the Transfer Portal is innocuous. Where the NCAA may have created an uncontrollable monster is first by removing the requirement that a transferring player has to sit out a year before actually playing at a new school. Then the second rule change (just a year ago) allows the student athlete to transfer schools as many times as he or she wants during their period of eligibility.

Together, these four NCAA initiatives created a “free agency” environment with no salary cap and no player movement restrictions. If a student athlete wants to change schools every year in order to take a better offer (i.e. more money) or seize a perceived better opportunity for more playing time, he or she can.

For the player, a decision to enter the Transfer Portal is not without risk. Once they ask the school’s compliance officer to enter their name in the portal, the school’s obligation to offer financial aid for the previously accepted scholarship will more than likely end. What happens if another offer does not come through the portal? The full cost of the remaining years of college education falls on the player and his family.

How long would the multi-billion dollar businessmen owning those professional franchises tolerate the chaos in player movement or the unpredictable financial outcomes?

So, a decision to enter the portal should not be made without a lot of forethought, including a realistic self-assessment of the student athlete’s marketability.

“For every player entering the portal,” said Dustin Kerns, the men’s basketball head coach at Appalachian State, “we genuinely wish them well and hope they find what is best for them and their respective families. That is important. But there are risks because the player may not get picked up at all, or he may have to settle for whatever is the best offer out there, even if not what he wanted or expected.”

In what world is this not crazy?

In short, today’s college athletics environment can be summed up as “complete free agency.” There are no rules, no restrictions and no contracts.

Imagine a professional league like the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB operating in such an environment. How long would the multi-billion dollar businessmen owning those professional franchises tolerate the chaos in player movement or the unpredictable financial outcomes? How long would it take the fans — their customers — to no longer care about a turnstile team roster that goes through wholesale changes, top to bottom, each season?

Right now, college athletics can best be described as organized mayhem. The simplest answer to the problems of escalating costs and player movements may be for a school to demand that a successfully recruited player sign a contract with some sort of buyout clause. If the player wants out of the contract, either he or a potential new school buys out the contract. That makes player movement more expensive so has the potential to help alleviate the problematic chaos by diminishing transfer demand.

College athletics has become big business and it may be time for all of the constituent interests to treat it like big business, contracts and all.

Men’s basketball is a microcosm for the ills of college athletics because it is the most competitive, with more teams playing at the highest level of the sport. There is no “Power Four” or “Group of Five,” but 362 teams in Division I trying to get better from year to year. A great many schools don’t have a football team and focus their branding and institutional identities on basketball, rightly or wrongly. This year, 358 (or 98.9 percent) of those 362 schools are participating in the transfer portal “rush,” either giving or taking or both.

POSTSCRIPT: A silver lining?

If there is a silver lining to the transfer portal, NIL and today’s free agency environment, it is this: Good players may not be as motivated to declare for the NBA after playing only a year or two of college ball because in many cases they can cash in on hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of dollars through the transfer portal.

 

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