At their best, transfers are a way of life in college athletics. At their worst, transfers are an all too necessary evil. The fact is with 400,000 student-athletes who make a major life decision at 16–18 years old, there is bound to be some amount of transfer activity. All sorts of ideas have been tried to reduce the transfer rate, with varying degrees of success, but it will never be reduced to zero.
Once a student-athlete decides to transfer, a number of rules come into play. It’s a complicated process, and a lot about the process is understood. Much of that is due to the exceptions that arise. If there were no exceptions, transfers would be governed by two simple rules. But as you’ll see in this guide, simpler is rarely better.
Permission to Contact or “Why Compliance Folk Hate the Word ‘Release’”
“So and so was released from his scholarship.” That is the common phrase you hear when it is reported that a student-athlete has decided to transfer. But there are two gigantic problems with that phrase.
The first is that whether an athlete is on scholarship affects surprising little in the transfer process. A walk-on must still get permission to contact and must still sit out in most cases. The second is that a release could mean one of four things, only one of which is formally called a release. But typically what it means is that the student-athlete was granted permission to contact.
Permission to contact starts the transfer process. Typically either a school contacts another school seeking permission to talk with one of its student-athletes or the athlete seeks permission to talk to other schools. Requests from one school to another are governed by professional courtesy while requests from student-athletes are governed by the NCAA rules.
Once a student-athlete makes a written request for permission to talk to other schools, the institution has seven business days to respond to the request or it is automatically granted. If permission to contact a school is denied, it must be denied in writing, and the student-athlete offered an appeal. That appeal is decided by individuals outside the athletic department and the student-athlete must be notified of a decision within 15 business days.
If permission to contact a school is denied, the other school may not encourage the transfer. But nothing prevents the student-athlete from enrolling in the school on their own. Once there, however, he or she may not receive an athletic scholarship until after an academic year has elapsed.
There are exceptions though:
- Once a school has announced a student-athlete’s sport will be dropped, permission is automatically granted to contact any institution.
- If the Committee on Infractions bans a team from the postseason for the rest of a student-athlete’s eligibility (assuming he or she does not redshirt), permission is automatically granted to contact any institution.
Finally, the permission to contact requirement expires after a student-athlete is gone from the institution for one academic year. The only exception is if the student-athlete is on a religious mission, then it remains intact.
One Exception to Rule Them All
Conventional wisdom says that student-athletes in football and basketball must sit out a year while athletes in other sports do not. In practice, conventional wisdom is mostly correct. According to the rules though, that is not always the case.
The basic rule is that any transfer from any collegiate institution to a Division I school must spend one academic year in residence before he or she is eligible for competition. In order to not sit out a year, the student-athlete must qualify for an exception to the residency requirement.
Transfers get pigeonholed into one of three categories: two-year college transfers, four-year college transfers, or 4–2–4 transfers (student-athletes who start at a four-year school, transfer to a junior college, then transfer to a Division I institution.) All have a different set of exceptions, but four-year college transfers (often called 4–4 transfers) are the focus here.
Most of the exceptions to the transfer requirement are very specific and apply only to a small fraction of student-athletes who transfer. They include:
- Student-athletes in exchange programs;
- When a student’s academic program is discontinued;
- If the student returns from military service;
- If the student-athlete’s sport was dropped or never sponsored by the first school;
- The student-athlete has not participated in sports for at least two years; or
- The student-athlete was not recruited and only tried out.
The bulk of student-athletes who transfer and do not need to sit out do so because they qualify for the one-time transfer exception. To qualify for the one-time transfer exception, a student-athlete must meet all of the following requirements:
- Play a sport other than baseball, basketball, FBS football, or men’s ice hockey;
- Have never previously transferred from a four-year institution;
- Be academically eligible at the first institution, assuming the student-athlete had stayed; and
- Get written notice from the first school that it does not object to the use of the one-time transfer exception.
The final requirement is the second of the four releases that can occur during a transfer. Permission to use the one-time transfer exception is often granted on a “tracer.” That is a form that compliance officers send each other when a student-athlete transfers which asks for this permission along with other information needed to determine if a student-athlete can use one of the transfer exceptions. If permission to use the one-time transfer exception is not granted, the student-athlete has a right to the same written notice and appeal process used when permission to contact is not granted.
When a student-athlete wishes to transfer after graduating, a slightly different set of rules kicks in. But a history lesson is in order.
Prior to 2005, a graduate had to meet one of the transfer exceptions like any other student. In 2006, Division I adopted proposal 2005–54, which stated that any student-athlete who graduated with eligibility remaining could transfer and play immediately at the new school if he or she enrolled in a graduate program. This was a brand new transfer exception, one with relatively few requirements, required no permission and which applied to many student-athletes.
As a result, many student-athletes took advantage of the new exception. So many in such a short amount of time that the rule was overridden and ultimately defeated at the 2007 NCAA Convention.
But the idea behind 2005–54 never fully went away. It lived on as a very standard waiver which was relatively easy to get, provided you qualified for it. To qualify, the student-athlete needed to graduate, enroll in a graduate program not offered by the first institution, and receive permission from the first institution to be granted the waiver (like the one-time transfer exception).
Finally, that waiver was codified by Proposal 2010–52 as Bylaw 18.104.22.168, as a transfer exception rather than a waiver, meaning each case did not need to be processed by the NCAA. There were two big changes. First, Bylaw 22.214.171.124 gives access to the one-time transfer exception for students who played sports that did not qualify for it. Second, the bylaw required that the student-athlete’s aid was not renewed for the following year, although this could occur after a student-athlete decided to transfer.
Where There’s a Will, There’s a Waiver
All NCAA rules are subject to waivers from the Subcommittee for Legislative Relief (SLR) and the NCAA staff in that area. The transfer rules have a number of such waivers. The most well-known are the graduate transfer waiver (which still exists) and the hardship transfer waiver. The hardship transfer waiver is for student-athletes who are compelled to transfer because of financial hardship or an injury or illness to the student-athlete or a member of their family.
Effect of the NLI
Only two parts of the National Letter of Intent really apply to transfers once a student-athlete has enrolled at the institution: how the provisions of the NLI are satisfied and the basic penalty of the NLI. The provisions of the letter are satisfied once the student-athlete attends the school for one academic year. After that, the NLI is complete and has no bearing on a transfers.
If a student-athlete wishes to transfer during the first academic year at the school, they would be subject to the basic penalty. If a student-athlete leaves without fulfilling the NLI, he or she must sit one year before competing at the new school and loses a season of competition in all sports.
The basic penalty can be avoided by obtaining a release. Obtaining a release from the NLI is much like obtaining permission to contact or use of the one-time transfer exception, but with two major differences. First, the NLI release is not school-specific, there is only a “complete release.” An institution cannot grant a release from the NLI, but exclude conference schools, for instance.
Second, the NLI has not one but two appeals. Both appeals are to groups outside the institution. If an institution denies the complete release, the student-athlete has 30 days to appeal to the NLI Policy and Review Committee.
Or earlier. ↩
An academic year is any two consecutive semesters or three consecutive quarters. It does not need to run fall-spring. ↩
In this case, the other schools that are contacting or being contacted by the student-athletes must notify the first school of the contact. ↩
This is part of two dueling proposals from the WAC and Mountain West a few years ago. The Mountain West wanted to stop schools from recruiting its athletes while they were on religious missions. The WAC countered by proposing to remove a transfer exception upon completion of a mission. Both were adopted. ↩
There are a few caveats though. If a student-athlete was not recruited, they can still use the exception even in the sports listed. The sport that counts is the one the athlete will play at the second institution. And to use the exception to transfer from FBS to FCS, the student-athlete must have at least two years of eligibility remaining. ↩
Permission to contact still would have been needed for an athlete to get financial aid. ↩
SLR is a subcommittee of the Legislative Council. ↩