A final word on Bo Ryan and Jarrod Uthoff

April, 19, 2012
4/19/12
4:50
PM ET
Boy, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast.

This morning, I thought we were done with the Bo Ryan-Jarrod Uthoff transfer saga. Uthoff’s long-lost appeal papers had been found in Wisconsin assistant athletic director Justin Doherty’s mailbox, the he-said-he-said appeal question was answered, Uthoff’s transfer process could begin in earnest, and the rest of us could all move on to other things.

Not so much.

On Thursday morning, Ryan appeared on “Mike and Mike in the Morning,” where he found himself in a heated, and not particularly flattering, debate about transfer restrictions and Ryan’s apparently draconian usage thereof. The backlash began in earnest. The backlash to the backlash -- in which at least one college hoops columnist derided the media for “villainizing” Ryan -- soon followed. In the immortal words of Champ Kind: It jumped up a notch.

[+] EnlargeBo Ryan
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireThe Bo Ryan-Jarrod Uthoff spat may have cast the coach in an unfavorable light, but the real issue is the rule allowing coaches to restrict transfers.
And so the final news update came this afternoon. From ESPN.com news services:
Wisconsin athletic officials, after meeting Thursday with basketball player Jarrod Uthoff, have agreed to lift all transfer restrictions except for Big Ten schools for the redshirt freshman.

The university said in a statement that Uthoff met Thursday with associate athletic director Justin Doherty and athletic director Barry Alvarez, as part of the appeal process.

Doherty, Alvarez and basketball coach Bo Ryan then met and decided to lift “permission to contact” restrictions on any school outside of the Big Ten Conference, the school said. Ryan supported lifting the restrictions outside of the Big Ten, according to the university.

In short, Ryan and the school have decided to let Uthoff transfer anywhere he wants, provided that school is not in the Big Ten.

Why the sudden reversal? Wisconsin would no doubt argue that this was the process all along, the give and take between schools and players on restrictions, appeals, permissions and so on. This is how it goes. This is how it can be resolved. Nothing to see here.

The more obvious and more likely explanation is that the “media won.” Those aren’t my words, mind you. They’re the words of various folks on Twitter, many of whom crowed at Ryan’s acquiescence following what is now the third day of nearly relentless negative press.

That’s one theory, and it’s probably pretty close to the truth. When your otherwise sterling reputation is being tarnished over something that (to any outsider, at least) appears rather petty and small, it’s best to just let it go and move on. Wisconsin did here, the firestorm loses oxygen, and we all find another argument to entertain us. After all, there’s always someone, somewhere, who’s wrong on the Internet.

But before you go back to getting mad at people for spoiling “Game of Thrones” with book references, let’s circle back on a few final things about the great Wisconsin transfer adventure of April 2012:

  1. No one should think Bo Ryan is a bad dude. If that’s your takeaway from all this, you’re missing the point. Ryan is a great coach and one who genuinely does things the right way, and his reasoning for this isn’t as simple as “Oh, he’s just being vindictive.” That may be the case. It also may not. Either way, it’s beside the point.
  2. The geographic circumstances of the transfer are beside the point, too. Uthoff said he wanted to transfer while Ryan was away with his wife. This has been cited as a reason why Ryan would feel antipathy toward his player, as an example of Uthoff’s supposed shadiness in dealing with his move. Would it have been better to handle face to face? Probably. Should it really matter all that much? No.
  3. There are instances in which a coach could reasonably decide to keep a player from transferring to a certain school. One example is transfers between conference opponents. The other is if a coach knows a school was tampering with his player -- nudging him toward a transfer before permission-to-contact is granted -- and he wants to close ranks, to make sure the rest of the nation’s coaches know that kind of behavior will only ensure the player doesn’t transfer to your school. That seems less than ideal on all fronts, but at least it makes some sense. Like Nos. 1 and 2 above, though, this is beside the point.
  4. Here’s the point: This is a bad rule that allows coaches to do things they shouldn’t be able to do when their players decide to transfer, one that speaks to the deep imbalance of personal efficacy in collegiate athletics. That’s what this is about.

Transfers must already sit out a year before they can play at another school. They sign one-year scholarships renewable by the school alone. They play for tuition and room and board, but nothing near the seven-figure sums their coaches make. And those coaches, practically speaking -- despite what Ryan has attempted to argue about buyouts -- can leave for new jobs almost whenever they want. (When’s the last time a coach wanted to leave a school but wasn’t allowed? Can you even remember?)

All of those factors contribute to this imbalance. That’s the problem -- it’s the rule.

Ryan didn’t have to exploit this rule so dramatically. The rule allows him to do so, but it doesn't require him to. Crucial distinction. In many cases, coaches place few restrictions on players who decide to transfer. But just as often, they do set these restrictions.

For example, while we were all arguing about Jarrod Uthoff, Tulsa all-conference guard Jordan Clarkson has had his approved transfer choices narrowed to just three schools out of the eight he requested by Golden Hurricane brass. This is not a new, or particularly rare, occurrence. It’s happening elsewhere even as we speak.

Ryan handled this situation poorly, from his ballooning restricted list to the “I didn’t make the rule” copout to the unfortunate Mike & Mike call-in Thursday morning. But he’s relented now. The drama is over. What remains is this rule -- and how coaches and athletic directors use it to exert a level of control over players that players themselves don’t even have. A coach shouldn’t, and many don’t. But some do. The root problem is that they can.

No one is demonizing Ryan. Or at least they shouldn’t be. The rule -- and what it does to make college basketball a system in which players are commodities to be controlled -- that’s the bad guy here. Let’s not forget it.

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