Is free agency for college athletes coming?

Free agency for college athletes?

Maybe. Sort of. Could be.

Here’s what we’ve got. The NCAA had a rule which allowed athletes who had graduated, but with eligibility remaining to transfer to another school without sitting out any time–IF they did post graduate school in a course that was not offered by the school where they received their degree.

That rule had lots of loopholes and was open to some strange interpretations.

Still, it worked well for former NC State QB Russell Wilson, who received his undergraduate degree at State and then took postgraduate work at Wisconsin, where he led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl last season.

The NCAA, mindful of potential problems and frauds, changed the rule this season. All you had to do was graduate, have eligibility remaining and look into post graduate courses of some kind and you could play at a different school–provided your former school no longer was going to offer you a scholarship (more about that later).

Say hello to Wisconsin again, which went to the ACC again and grabbed former Maryland QB Danny O’Brien who had graduated in three years, but still had two years of eligibility remaining.

Maryland agreed to not offer any more financial age, so O’Brien was free to pick and choose. He looked hard at Penn State and then looked harder at Wisconsin–feeling it was a better fit–much better considering the post Jerry Sandusky fall out at Penn State.

With the new rule in place, O’Brien can play for the Badgers for two seasons since he has two years of eligibility remaining.

In essence, we have a form of free agency, with some restrictions. For the NCAA–which has always talked about its concerns for the welfare of the student athlete, but then puts restrictions on what they can do and allows the selling of merchandise with the numbers and names of star athletes which generates thousands of dollar of revenue, but none which goes to the athlete–it was a small step forward.

Here’s the problem.

Let’s say we have a Top 10 program that knows it is one or two players away from being a Top 5 program.

You can get new players into your system by transferring–but that often means a year or two of waiting. You can recruit freshmen, but the best of freshmen are still freshmen, with no guarantees.

Or you can work on this rule by having someone on the staff monitor all the programs around the country that are not having great seasons. Then check out all the all-conference quality players who have eligibility remaining from those schools and check out their academic progress rate. If they are close to graduating–Boston College, for example, generally has six or seven players each season who have graduated BEFORE their final season of eligibility

Would any of those players, with a BC degree, but almost no chance of playing for the national championship or in a BCS bowl, want to spend one season playing for a USC or Alabama or Oklahoma?

Would USC, Alabama or Oklahoma rather recruit a five-star player who has great potential, but has yet to prove himself academically or athletically in college or take a sure thing–someone who has his degree and has performed at the highest level?

Oh, there are some safety measures in place to prevent the top schools raiding other schools. The school with the player being recruited still has to NOT offer a scholarship to someone who is probably vital to the team’s success–and why is any coach going to do that?

And the pool of players who graduate early AND have proven they can compete successfully at the highest level is very shallow.

Still, it is different and it allows both football players and basketball players who have ambitions of moving into the NBA or NFL, a chance to enhance their reputation.

Whether it remains the exception, rather than the rule remains to be seen. But it is a new wrinkle and schools, looking for any edge, will push the rulebook as far as they can.

© 2012, Mark. All rights reserved.

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