After Maryland saga, time for NCAA rule that actually protects athletes
Amid scrutiny, Maryland will allow Danny O'Brien and others to transfer anywhere
Coaches, who can freely switch schools, shouldn't be able to restrict player moves
It shouldn't take a public shaming for coaches to relent; the NCAA needs to act
The Former Maryland Player Hostage Crisis appears to be over.
Quarterback Danny O'Brien, offensive lineman Max Garcia and linebacker Mario Rowson, who announced their intentions to transfer last week, can transfer anywhere they wish and accept athletic scholarships. Previously, Terrapins coach Randy Edsall had refused to release the players to fellow ACC schools, any nonconference school on Maryland's schedule in the next two years and Vanderbilt. Wednesday, Maryland announced the players could transfer within the ACC or to Vanderbilt and accept athletic scholarships.
All it took was a thorough public shaming. Edsall was drawn and quartered in media new and old, and rightfully so. (The slices included an epic takedown from The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins; may the rest of us pray we never draw her ire.) No one blocked Edsall from getting paid by another school when he bailed on Connecticut to go to Maryland last year, so what right does he have to restrict anyone else's movement?
This, apparently, is how transfer decisions will be conducted until the schools alter the ridiculous NCAA rules that give vagabond coaches the power to block players from accepting scholarships at certain schools when the players are doing exactly what the coaches have done: seeking a better situation for themselves. We saw the same thing in January when Tennessee coach Derek Dooley blocked receiver DeAnthony Arnett from transferring to Michigan State or Michigan. Tennessee brass questioned the motives of Arnett, who said he wanted to be closer to his sick father. Arnett's motives shouldn't have mattered, though. No one questioned Dooley's motives when he left Louisiana Tech for Tennessee. Plus, why should Dooley have cared where a player buried on his depth chart went? If he isn't good enough to play at Tennessee, why does it matter where he goes?
These points were raised frequently in the media for a few days, and Dooley relented and gave Arnett a full release. It's sad that we have to resort to public shaming to make coaches do the right thing, but the NCAA rules give us no choice. So here's how it will work until the rules change.
1. Player decides to transfer.
2. Coach, conveniently forgetting that he has left other schools in the past with no restrictions, tries to restrict that transfer.
3. Coach is publicly lambasted until he gives in. (In three high-profile cases this year -- involving the Maryland players, Arnett and former St. Joseph's basketball player Todd O'Brien -- the good guys are batting .667.)
The rules are foolish, but the member schools in the NCAA have a long and storied history of stacking the system against the students their leaders claim to care about so much. The rise of social media has helped expose that because it allows for constant reminders of how stupid some of the NCAA's rules are.
The stipulation barring Danny O'Brien and company from attending Vanderbilt on scholarship seemed puzzling. There are only two possible reasons behind it. Reason No. 1: Edsall thinks Vandy coach James Franklin, the former offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting at Maryland, tampered with O'Brien while O'Brien was trying to decide whether to stay at Maryland or transfer. Reason No. 2: Edsall doesn't want O'Brien to succeed under Franklin because it will make him look terrible.
Why would O'Brien succeeding in Nashville reflect so negatively on Edsall? Because it would prove that Franklin succeeded where Edsall couldn't, and it would make Maryland athletic director Kevin Anderson's decision to hire Edsall over Franklin look even worse. Remember, Franklin took over the doormat in the toughest league in America and improved it by four wins in his first season, leading Vanderbilt to a bowl game for only the fifth time in school history. Edsall, meanwhile, took over a team that went 9-4 in 2010 and went 2-10 while playing in a relatively weak conference.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Maryland has filed a complaint with the ACC, which has turned the complaint over to the SEC, of which Vanderbilt is a member. For his part, Franklin has denied any tampering. He has admitted that he and O'Brien remained close after Franklin left for Vanderbilt, but he said he never did anything improper.
"I don't like innuendos and comments being made about tampering and things like that," Franklin told Nashville's 104.5 The Zone last week. "You guys know me. I'm the type of guy, I'm going to have relationships with my players. I hope to have relationships with the guys that play for me for the rest of my life. But the fact that people would make accusations that we tampered or did this or did that, again, I'm just going to defend our program and defend our character and how we do things. But I think it's ridiculous to think that I'm not going to have relationships with these kids after I leave places."
None of this should matter, of course. Michael Rosenberg touted this point in his piece on the O'Brien situation on Tuesday, but it bears repeating. As long as coaches are free to move wherever and whenever they want, players should be allowed to do the same. If schools want to avoid full-scale free agency, they can keep the rule that forces undergraduates to sit out a year after transferring. (O'Brien can play immediately because he will be a graduate student; this is the best rule on the NCAA's books.) But the rules should not allow coaches -- nearly all of whom have left a school during their careers -- to restrict players from changing schools. Jeff Hathaway, the UConn AD at the time, didn't restrict Edsall from negotiating with particular schools. Edsall should extend his departing players that same courtesy.
The best attitude a coach ever had on this subject belonged to Steve Spurrier. While coaching at Florida in 1999, Spurrier was asked about intra-conference transfers by Mike Bianchi, then a columnist at the Florida Times-Union, at SEC media days. At the time, a debate raged in the league as to whether SEC-to-SEC transfers should have to sit out two years. "It's a free country, isn't it?" Spurrier asked, rhetorically. Then he looked at Bianchi. "Hey, Bianchi," Spurrier said, "you didn't have to sit out two years when you switched newspapers, did you?"
Of course, Spurrier was trying to get linebacker Travis Carroll from Alabama to Florida at the time. (All politics truly are local.) But only a year earlier, Spurrier had allowed quarterback Tim Olmstead to transfer to Vanderbilt, a school Florida plays every year. Olmstead was buried on Florida's depth chart, and Spurrier didn't see a threat in facing him. At the time, Spurrier said he might have to reconsider his stance if he thought the player leaving could beat him.
The coaches have that choice because the schools have given it to them by way of an NCAA rule. It's time to take that option out of the coaches' hands. If NCAA president Mark Emmert truly wants to make his organization treat athletes more fairly, then he'll prevail upon university presidents to approve a rule that allows freedom of movement for NCAA athletes.
Coaches shouldn't always need a public shaming to figure out how to do the right thing.