Since its Oct. 15, 2018, debut, the NCAA Transfer Portal has had an outsized impact in collegiate sports.
It has drawn the attention of the media and fans, who wonder: Why was it created? How does it work? Is it really a form of free agency that allows student-athletes to move from campus to campus?
The passion that people have for intercollegiate athletics plays a role in perpetuating these questions. During the downtime between seasons, additions or subtractions to a team’s roster always have drawn interest. But with the advent of the Transfer Portal, interest in the process behind approving transfers has intensified — partly because the idea of a new digital tool for managing it is intriguing, and partly because the media and the public don’t have access to the portal.
The Transfer Portal was created as a compliance tool to systematically manage the transfer process from start to finish, add more transparency to the process among schools and empower student-athletes to make known their desire to consider other programs.
The digital tools of athletics compliance aren’t often intriguing to fans and the media. Yet news of student-athletes entering their names in the portal appears on the tickers at the bottom of the screen on sports networks, and chatter about the portal fills hours on talk shows and provides fodder for opinion pieces.
Perceptions abound, but the actuality is that it was born with some simple goals in mind.
What it is
If there is one group that benefits the most from the creation of the portal, it is compliance administrators.
Since each transfer can bring different challenges, it’s hard for compliance administrators to say exactly the amount of time the portal saves them. But the consensus is that tasks that previously could have taken hours, days or weeks are simply going away. The process now can be started in minutes.
“This is probably the best use of technology that I’ve seen in a long while,” says Dede Allen, associate director for compliance and academics at Alaska Anchorage. “Everybody who needs access to the information can get it. When a student-athlete wants to transfer, you are trying to help them, and the last thing you want to do is impede the process.”
Allen is in a special situation because her school competes in Division I in men’s ice hockey but Division II for the rest of its sports. Because the portal is optional in Division II, some schools may not place their athletes in the central repository.
That can lead to some frustration, but it is all part of the growing process of an entity that just reached its first anniversary.
“If the other DII school does not use the portal, then using the old-school method of typing up a transfer tracer is used,” says Margie Sullivan, assistant athletics director for compliance at Rollins. “All Sunshine State Conference compliance staff use the portal except for those situations where the student-athlete is transferring from a two-year institution or a non-NCAA institution.”
Sean McAndrews, associate athletics director for compliance and game administration at West Virginia State, added: “The Transfer Portal helps save me time for the compliance part of my job. Like most administrators in Division II, I have other duties, such as sports information and facilities responsibilities.”
The real-time aspect of the portal is another feature that stands out to compliance administrators. Those with access to the portal can run reports on data such as how many student-athletes in a specific sport, school or conference actively are looking to transfer.
The portal also helps the NCAA research staff collect transfer data since it is all in one place, and staffers don’t have to rely on individual schools or conferences to certify the movement of student-athletes.
Data collected can help NCAA members analyze how the transfer process is working with an eye toward making appropriate changes in the future.
Division I went to a notification-of-transfer model for the 2018-19 academic year.
The student-athlete is empowered by the change to the bylaw. Once student-athletes ask that a compliance administrator place their name in the portal, the school has two business days to submit the information.
It is up to the individual school to develop policies regarding portal requests.
The downside for student-athletes is that their current school can reduce or stop giving them athletics aid at the end of the term in which the request was made to enter the Transfer Portal.
“Anyone who comes to me, the first question I ask is: Have you talked to your family?” says Steve Corder, assistant athletics director for compliance at Detroit Mercy. “A lot of times kids want to leave on scholarship, and their parents may not understand why they are willing to give that up. There may be a conversation that needs to be had about how will college be paid for if another scholarship opportunity doesn’t arise.”
If student-athletes withdraw from the portal, the original school can return them to the roster and restore athletics aid if it chooses.
“The schools put a lot of resources and hours into the recruiting process,” says Lisa Archbald, associate commissioner for compliance and governance and senior woman administrator of the Northeast Conference. “The membership wanted there to be some accountability for the student-athletes.”
Previously in Division I, when student-athletes wanted to transfer, they had to ask their coach for permission to contact other schools. If the coach denied the request, student-athletes could make their case to the athletics director.
If permission was still denied, student-athletes could make the request to a designated campus administrator, such as a dean of students. If the request still wasn’t approved, the final step would be to appeal to a committee that consists of professionals on campus and other students.
Those who didn’t receive permission still could transfer but couldn’t be offered athletics aid at the new school.
Once student-athletes identified schools where they would explore attending, the compliance administrator had to send correspondence to each of the schools. Those schools would send back a transfer tracer that had to be filled out by hand.
Since there was no uniform way for schools to put together transfer tracers, they could vary in the questions asked and the length of the form that needed to be filled out. For example, if a student-athlete wanted to explore transferring to 10 schools, the compliance administrator at the current school would have to fill out 10 tracers, which were either faxed or scanned to email back and forth between the athletics departments.
Depending on workload, a compliance administrator couldn’t know for sure when the other school would reply.
“There were enormous inefficiencies in the previous way we had to do this,” says Carrie Doyle, senior associate athletics director for compliance at NC State. “I’ve always been a person who appreciates a good system and a good process. From a 100,000-foot perspective, the Transfer Portal is a smart thing to do.”
What it isN’T
One of the misconceptions about the portal revolves around a process that has nothing to do with the portal itself: the question of whether a transferring student-athlete will be immediately eligible to compete at a new school.
In Division I sports, student-athletes may transfer once to another four-year NCAA school and are eligible to compete immediately, provided they are academically eligible and the previous school does not object, without sitting out a year in residence.
However, this one-time transfer exception doesn’t apply to baseball, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, football or men’s ice hockey. Student-athletes in these sports must file for a waiver to be able to compete without sitting out a season.
The portal doesn’t affect the decisions of the Division I waiver team, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact.
“The portal has gotten a lot of buzz,” says Brandy Hataway, NCAA academic and membership affairs director who oversees the staff members who process transfer waivers. “The light shines on us more where it maybe wasn’t before. That’s the biggest effect it has had on us.”
Hataway says the requests are handled on a case-by-case basis.
If a waiver request meets one of the 11 waiver standards adopted through the Division I governance structure, the staff can approve the request if it shows extenuating and extraordinary mitigating circumstances beyond the student-athlete’s control. If the staff denies the request, the student-athlete can appeal to the Division I Committee for Legislative Relief to be granted immediate eligibility.
Most of the waiver requests fall into criteria of no participation opportunity at the previous school; egregious behavior; student-athlete injury or illness; and family member injury or illness. But some of the waiver requests fall outside the guidelines of these categories and are approved based on the totality of circumstances.
Over 80% of the waiver requests are in men’s and women’s basketball and football. Because those sports are immensely popular, scrutiny on the decisions is high.
Within the NCAA national office, a staff normally reaches a consensus on whether a waiver should be granted.
“It is a collaborative effort,” says Jerry Vaughn, associate director of academic and membership affairs and part of the core staff that handles Division I waivers. “Having different perspectives matters, and it is also illustrative of how our membership makes decisions.”
When media or fans do not agree with a decision concerning the approval or denial of a student-athlete’s request to become immediately eligible, the portal or the people drawing the conclusions take the brunt of the criticism.
Hataway says most of it stems from the perception that if student-athletes place their name in the portal, the decision as to whether a waiver is granted isn’t handled on a consistent basis.
“You can’t compare a no-participation-opportunity waiver request to an injury/illness waiver request,” Hataway says. “Whether it’s right or wrong, the media and the public want to know how a case is being denied in an injury/illness case, but someone else is getting to play immediately in a no-participation-opportunity case. One is athletics-based, and the other is not.”
Each case is decided on its own merits. For example in a no-participation-opportunity waiver request, a student-athlete is more likely to receive a waiver if the student-athlete’s previous school agrees that a participation opportunity isn’t available instead of disputing the claim.
Student-athletes, family members, friends, coaches, athletics administrators and the media can choose to share their opinions about the outcome of a waiver decision. To protect student-athletes’ privacy, what doesn’t come out in public is any kind of statement regarding the specifics of a case from the NCAA national office or a member of the Division I Committee for Legislative Relief, which is made up of administrators from around the country.
Still, the team of academic and membership affairs staff members who make the waiver decisions are aware when a case is going to draw attention.
“Regardless of the outcome, there are going to be people on either side of the argument,” Vaughn says. “We can’t let that drive how we process the cases. I just look at it as this is my job. We follow the guidelines set by the membership.”
This summer, Vaughn presented some case studies at a meeting of the Division I Football Oversight Committee. He left out the names of the schools and student-athletes involved, and at the conclusion of each example, the committee members were usually split as to whether that student-athlete should receive a waiver.
“There are a lot of complexities to some of these cases,” Hataway says. “If 100% of the waiver requests met the guidelines, then you would have 100% of the student-athletes playing right away. If none of the waiver requests met the guidelines, then it would be 0%. We aren’t striving to reach a certain percentage.”
DI men’s basketball transfer waivers for the 2018-19 season
the story behind the portal
Susan Peal, an NCAA director of governance, has worked at the national office for 20 years and, before that, worked in athletics compliance at Charleston Southern and Ohio State. She manages the National Letter of Intent program and, in 2011, was integral in developing an online portal to handle requests from student-athletes who wanted to be released from their letters of intent.
Throughout the years of working with student-athletes who change their minds about which school would be best for them, Peal always thought: There has to be a way to make this process better.
When the Division I Council formed a working group in 2017 to study policies for transfer student-athletes, Peal wanted to be ready with a compliance tool that would help organize the process and make it easier for compliance administrators on campus. In June 2018, the Division I Council adopted legislation to change the transfer process from a model that required schools to have permission to contact student-athletes already competing at other NCAA member schools to a notification-of-transfer model that allows student-athletes to broadly express interest in transferring.
Peal turned to an advisory group she had put together of conference and campus compliance administrators. Members discussed ways to make the transfer process more manageable for student-athletes, compliance administrators and coaches. After gathering feedback from the group, Peal began working with the information technology team in the national office.
Together, they built the interface and infrastructure of the Transfer Portal.
So why is there so much misinformation about the portal, how it works and why it was created? Perhaps the confusion comes from the different meaning it has to all those who use it.
For student-athletes, who don’t have access to the portal, the interface is all about their individual desire to find the right program for them. After student-athletes ask their school to enter their name in the portal, administrators have two business days to comply. Once their name is entered, student-athletes receive an email notifying them that they are in the portal.
Student-athletes can provide an email address and a phone number where any interested coaches can contact them. Or student-athletes can decide not to provide contact information and reach out to the schools they are interested in attending.
The no-contact feature was built into the portal based on feedback from the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.
The rationale behind the choice not to provide contact information is that some student-athletes already have an idea where they would like to transfer, and they don’t want their transfer process to mirror the experience of being recruited when they were high school.
For coaches, the portal is a place to see who is looking to transfer. Coaches can set up a watch list of the people they want to track, and they can see in real time when student-athletes have matriculated to another program or taken their name out of the portal altogether. This feature can cut down on wasted efforts to recruit someone who already has decided where to go to school.
For compliance administrators, the portal is an online location that has all the information needed to handle a transfer situation. Having everything in a centralized spot cuts down the time they used to spend handling the process.