Gophers athletes Daniel Oturu and Gable Steveson are two of the best collegiate performers in their respective sports. Oturu is a star center in basketball; Steveson is the nation’s top-ranked heavyweight in wrestling.

If both decided to transfer to a different school, per NCAA rules, Steveson would be eligible to compete next season. Oturu would be required to sit out one year.

That’s not fair.

The Big Ten wants to fix that.

The conference reportedly submitted a proposal to the NCAA supporting a one-time transfer exemption that would allow athletes in every sport to change schools without sitting out a year. Currently, all but five sports — football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, baseball and men’s hockey — have a one-time exemption that clears athletes to compete immediately. Athletes in those five high-profile sports must sit out a year unless the NCAA grants them a waiver, and that’s a baffling process in itself. (Just ask Gophers basketball player Marcus Carr.)

News of the Big Ten’s proposal became public last week and leads one to believe that it will happen in the next few years, essentially creating a free-agency model. This is a slippery slope, but I’m in favor of giving athletes more control over their situations.

College sports is littered with contradiction. Skyrocketing revenue generated through TV deals has made everybody rich(er). Except athletes.

So what is fair?

College athletes have it better now than ever before — facilities, academic support, full cost of attendance — but it’s not enough. The amateurism model worked for generations but grew outdated. College athletes are full-time employees in a billion-dollar industry.

Allowing athletes to benefit from the use of their name, image and likeness (the “NIL” movement) will become reality at some point. I support this because it compensates athletes without creating a payroll system. Exact parameters need to be ironed out, but NIL will modernize the system. If a company wants to compensate Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan for an autograph signing, what’s the harm in that? If a car dealership pays All-America softball pitcher Amber Fiser to appear in a commercial, does anyone believe that would cause the empire to crumble? Of course not.

The NIL movement is smart and fair, and the Big Ten’s transfer plan would have an even more profound effect: It would remove a big hurdle for every athlete.

In 2018, the current “transfer portal” model was unveiled, making the process of changing schools more convenient, more transparent and less restrictive. Coaches can no longer interfere with the process. Still, being forced to sit out one year of competition remains a significant deterrent for athletes in those five sports.

A one-time exemption model for all sports would create a radically new landscape. The number of transfers would multiply exponentially.

That gives me pause. Not a stop sign. But pause. I do know this: It would be better than the current mess. What benefits we see from the portal process are often ruined by the waiver process. It’s maddening. For athletes in those five major sports, there’s no consistency. Some athletes get cleared to play right away, some don’t. And because the process is private, nobody knows why the NCAA rules a certain way.

Ultimately, we’re dealing with two sets of transfer rules: one for the major sports, and one for everyone else. As a matter of principle, how can the NCAA justify continuing to operate this way? It’s simply not fair to allow athletes in some sports to transfer without penalty while forcing athletes in highly visible sports to sit.

A one-time exemption would open the door to more transfers, guaranteed. If a player is unhappy with playing time, see ya. No penalty.

Is that good for business? Depends on one’s perspective. Let’s be honest: Your view at a given moment will depend on whether your school is losing or gaining a transfer.

We tend to envision worst-case scenarios: Spend two years developing a player and then, boom, he or she is gone to greener pastures. It happened to the Gophers softball team last year when two-time Big Ten Player of the Year Kendyl Lindaman transferred to Florida to further her career.

Guess what? The Gophers made it to the College World Series without her.

Coaches won’t universally like penalty-free transfer, but it’s inevitable. The system is changing. Athletes are gaining more control and leverage. Ultimately, that’s the right thing.

 

chip.scoggins@startribune.com