3: Sports ethicists talk about coaches blocking transfers

This is the third story in the transfer series. I emailed seven sports ethicists (two replied) and interviewed them about the ethics of coaches blocking where players transfer. The story ran April 22, 2014

HARRISONBURG, Va. — A panel of James Madison University faculty will decide today if JMU quarterback Michael Birdsong can transfer to schools blocked by new football coach Everett Withers. If it were up to two sports ethics experts, Birdsong could go wherever he wanted.

The ethicists, both now college professors, said Monday that a coach having the authority to restrict a player from transferring to certain schools is wrong and that the problem is begging for NCAA reform.

Mike Gilleran, a former conference commissioner and NCAA investigator who is currently the executive director of the Santa Clara University Institute for Sports Law and Ethics, said college players seeking to transfer should be allowed to go to any school they choose. He said a major problem with transferring is the often absolute and dictatorial power of college coaches.

“If the NCAA then has to set up a whole separate deal to free up some of those gazillions of dollars to do it, to just manage transfer disputes, sort of like the Judge Judy, if you will, of transfers, then you do it,” said Gilleran, who retired as the commissioner of the West Coast Conference in 2008 after 24 1/2 years. “It’s not that tough. But what’s tough is getting away from the mindset that the coach knows best — the coach is the program; the program is the coach; the coach is a god.”

Birdsong, the Dukes’ 2013 starting quarterback, has requested his release from JMU and plans to transfer, but he said last week that Withers has blocked several schools. While Birdsong said he has no problem with Withers banning his release to fellow Colonial Athletic Association colleges, he is appealing the other four schools that he says are on the forbidden list: Appalachian State, Charlotte, Liberty and Old Dominion.

Through a spokesman, Withers has refused to comment until after Birdsong ‘s hearing, which is scheduled for 1:45 p.m. today. It is unclear who will sit on the panel — it’s chaired by a non-athletics administrator — but Gilleran and Shawn Klein, who writes the “The Sports Ethicist” blog, both said the decision shouldn’t be in the hands of a coach or a school; it should be up to the player.

It’s a situation that can be a public-relations nightmare for the coach and the school. Just ask Bo Ryan. The Wisconsin men’s basketball coach tried to block Jarrod Uthoff’s transfer to all of the Big Ten and all of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Uthoff, although he didn’t immediately receive a scholarship due to Big Ten transfer rules, ended up at conference rival Iowa. (The CAA prohibits players who transfer within the conference from being on scholarship their first season at the new school.)

“It’s naked power on the part of the coaches to dictate whether a student can go to another school, even in cases where it may not even be an athletic reason,” said Klein, a philosophy professor at Rockford (Ill.) University who got his Ph.D. from Arizona State in 2010. “They may be switching schools for family reasons. They may be switching schools for professional reasons, in terms of graduate school. … All that, I think, piles on to make it a bad PR move. Unless the coach has got a real good reason why they’re going to make trouble as to why they’re not going to let this guy go to a certain set of schools, then that seems like he’s stepping out into hot water.”

Said Gilleran: “I know [JMU] is a good school. I just can’t imagine anybody working there feels, `Ah, this is really cool. We get to tell young people where they can go and where they can’t go when they leave. I’m good with that.’ I don’t think so.”

Gilleran said that when he was WCC commissioner, the league had a rule banning players from transferring between WCC schools. He said the purpose was to “preserve peace in the family” and that it was spelled out early, establishing ground rules so there were no surprises if a player did want to transfer – and that, he said, is the key.

Birdsong said James Madison initially barred him only from CAA schools, adding the other four colleges afterward. A major issue with JMU’s situation, both Gilleran and Klein said, is that additional schools were banned late and, seemingly, at random.

“To go leave it up in the air and then say, ‘In addition to conference rules, here are some more schools we’re not going to let you go to,’ that, to me — I don’t believe that’s ethical,” Gilleran said. “I don’t believe that’s ethical behavior.”

Only one of the banned schools (Charlotte) is on JMU’s schedule next season, and three out of four of them are in the process of transitioning from Division I-AA to I-A. Two of the banned schools (Charlotte and ODU) are in Conference USA.

“To have it in the arbitrary hands of the coach or the athletic director just to decide which schools you can go to or you can’t go to, that seems really unfair and unjust,” Klein said. “I can understand if signing day comes along and you [sign] your commitment letter and you get your scholarship, and they say, ‘Look, when you agree to come here, here are the schools you can’t transfer to without certain kinds of penalties.’ And if you agree at that point, that seems fair to me.”

The solution to this problem, Gilleran and Klein said, is reform. The NCAA is being vigorously criticized for how it operates — namely because the non-profit organization makes billions of dollars off players who get little compensation beyond scholarships. Gilleran and Klein said transfer rules can be tied to that criticism because they further marginalize a player’s power in the system.

Gilleran said he is in favor of players transferring as easily as coaches change jobs, although it still would include sitting out a year “to get your feet on the ground academically.” It’s an opinion, he said, that isn’t popular among his “colleagues,” especially as it applies to football because of the number of players on a roster. I-A teams get 85 scholarships; I-AA teams, such as JMU, get 63.

“Their response always to me was, `Mike, you don’t understand. Football has so many bodies that, if we allowed free agency, there would be no end to recruiting,'” said Gilleran, who never dealt with football as a commissioner because the WCC doesn’t sponsor the sport. “‘We would never know when we had a roster. We wouldn’t know how many scholarships we had to work with. The system would collapse.’

“So I will defer in some ways to the folks that worked with football every day. But I still think that when you balance the interests, I do come out with a really heavy weight in favor of the young people, of the young men and women. It’s their career; it’s their lives. They only have a short period to do it, and, with all due respect to the folks — and I understand I’m in a very small minority here — I think we could survive it. I don’t think you’d have wholesale uprooting. But if you did, maybe the answer is deal with it.”


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