On runoff scholarships and college hoops

May, 24, 2010
5/24/10
4:48
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You know what would be, like, a total buzzkill? Signing a scholarship to play collegiate basketball at a major institution, making good on your end of the commitment, and then finding out after a year -- or two or three -- that, hey, thanks for coming, but we kind of need that scholarship for someone vastly more talented now. Would you mind transferring? This is where we the school will kindly remind you that your scholarship is a one-year, merit-based, renewable document, and we are under no obligation to extend it for another year should we choose not to. Any questions?

Harsh, bro. Harsh. The practice of sending players away via transfer to make room for scholarships is called a runoff, and it happens more frequently than it should -- which is to say it shouldn't happen at all.

Typically, runoff players transfer quietly, moving on from their schools with little protest. Sometimes, though, a player or a player's family gets angry about what they see as a raw deal. Sometimes they talk to the media. These are important moments; they draw the curtain back on one of college basketball's most unfair, exploitative policies, and they're worth discussing when they arrive.

Last year's biggest such moment came when Kentucky coach John Calipari oversaw the transfer of seven players leftover from Billy Gillispie's tenure at the school. Several of those players publicly claimed they forced out of the program, while Calipari insisted that he merely told those players they likely wouldn't get much playing time if they decided to stay at UK.

We have another such moment this offseason. On April 12, Missouri announced that forward Tyler Stone and sophomore guard Miguel Paul would be transferring out of the program to seek opportunities elsewhere. On April 14, Missouri signed two top-rated junior college transfers. Good timing.

True to form, Paul and Stone have remained quiet about the situation, but Stone's mother Sharon -- yes, her name is Sharon Stone, and there's no word on whether Sam Rothstein's lawyers are going to get involved -- spoke out to the Associated Press on what she sees as the unfair treatment of her son:
"I can't see how a school can love him to death one year and the next year cut him loose," said his mother, Sharon Stone. "They had to get rid of somebody." She described a celebratory spring break barbecue touting her son's first year in college. Her son went back to campus afterward and, hours later, called with unexpected news. "He came back (to Columbia) Monday and said, 'I have to transfer,'" she recalled. "I thought he was going to graduate from that school."

This isn't intended to pick on Missouri or Kentucky specifically, because this happens everywhere. As the AP writes, it's hard to quantify just how common this is, because runoff players are lumped into statistics about college hoops roster turnover with transfers who decide to leave of their own volition (Paul is one such transfer, according to his public comments) as well as players who lose their scholarships due to academic underperformance. But pretty much everyone agrees this happens all the time, and everywhere.

What makes this issue especially salient -- and ripe for change -- is that level of agreement. College hoops fans are divided on all sorts of things -- on whether players should be paid, on whether the one-and-done rule is a good or bad thing, and so on. Even tournament expansion, a vastly unpopular idea, had its share of defenders. But everyone agrees here: Runoffs are a bad thing, and they should never happen. College hoops is already a vastly imbalanced enterprise. It generates oodles of cash for its institutions and conferences and coaches and athletic directors, all of who have the freedom to come and go from school to school however they please. Players, on the other hand, are beholden to their institutions; they have to wait an entire calendar year to transfer, should they so choose. The flip-side of that agreement? Players can lose their scholarships at any point during the offseason whether those players like it or not.

It's incredibly unfair. (And harsh too, bro.) And as much as coaches try to keep these runoffs from being public -- seeming willing to discard your players is a great way to lose recruits and come off as cutthroat at the same time -- it's not like this is a secret. It's in the NCAA's rules.

Those rules have to be changed. At the risk of merely criticizing and not offering constructive solutions -- my mom always told me that wasn't nice -- let's spitball fixes. Here's a start: The NCAA needs come up with a new rule, one that makes scholarships a four-year commitment by the institution voidable only if the player decides to leave or if the player fails to live up to the school's academic and behavioral code. Failing that, the NCAA needs to amend the process by mandating year-over-year scholarship renewal provided the conditions of the scholarship have been met.

If a player's grades are good, and he hasn't had any extemporaneous behavior issues that the school could bring to bear on the renewal process, and that player wants to be back, he should be, no matter how few points he scored or how many skilled recruits are waiting in the wings. It'd be nice if the NCAA also decided to allow players to transfer after without waiting a year -- if we're not going to pay them, the least we can do is grant them some flexibility -- but let's not get too greedy. The aforementioned changes would put at least some of the control over a player's future back in the player's hands. It would tip the balance. It would be a start.

This isn't right. Everyone knows this isn't right. And now it needs to change. For once, a problem with college basketball is simple. There's no reason a solution shouldn't follow suit.

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