John Helyar wrote a book, Lords of the Realm, which is a history of baseball’s labor relations. In it, he recounts the period when labor and ownership had to refashion their relationship after the Messersmith decision that opened the doors to free agency. Marvin Miller, who had a history of running rings around the owners, knew the way to maximize economic returns for the players was to agree to certain restrictions that would limit the number of free agents on the market in a given year.
It turned out there was one owner who understood how the marketplace worked — Charlie Finley (probably because he screwed up with Catfish Hunter and then watched his star players walk away when their contracts expired). Finley’s solution was to make every player a free agent, with the idea that with the market flooded, teams would have more leverage in contract negotiations. The owners hated Finley, which meant they rejected his suggestion, and Miller negotiated a deal along the lines he wanted. The rest, as they say, is history.
I mention all this because Andy Staples’ piece about the transfer portal rang a similar bell.
Here’s why players need to make a raw, honest evaluation of their situations before they enter the portal. Once a player enters the portal, the player’s current school is under no obligation to keep that player on scholarship. After all, a man can’t leave the house and tell his wife he’s going on a few dates that night and reasonably expect her to still let him sleep in her bed. Most programs sign so many players that if everyone comes back for next season, that program will be over the 85-scholarship limit. Attrition—players getting booted, players retiring, players transferring—always seems to get programs to 85, but there is no reason a coach couldn’t just zap the players in the portal to get to the number. This potential transfer described above appears prepared to stay at his original school, which is willing to take him back. That likely means the coaching staff is holding out hope for a potential contribution and that coaches just like the guy. But if a player isn’t contributing and a problem in the locker room, his coaches may be praying this spring that he hops into the portal so they can cut him loose with no potential blowback.
There has never been a group less qualified than college football coaches to complain about other people seeking greener pastures. As a group, college coaches are frequent job hoppers who routinely leave their players in a lurch when a better opportunity comes along. So the coaches need to suck it up and quit whining about the power given to the players by the new transfer rules. The coaches brought this on themselves, and they are more than adequately compensated to deal with the complications that arise from the players having a little freedom of movement. The smartest coaches will not complain, anyway.
They will see this as an opportunity, because the power is about to swing back in their direction as programs analyze their scholarship situations. Nebraska coach Scott Frost recently said he kept a few scholarships in his back pocket for potential transfers. Miami’s Manny Diaz explained how he is using the transfer portal to restore class balance in Coral Gables. But even the coaches who had the foresight to stash some scholarships because of a potential bump in the transfer population didn’t store that many. There will be less FBS scholarships available than there are FBS players in the portal, which means those coaches with scholarships can afford to be choosy and grab only players who either can fill an immediate need or who project as future stars with a little seasoning. Everybody else? They can just leave them in the portal.
Somebody out there came to the realization that it was pointless for ADs and coaches to create PR problems out of unhappy players wanting a change of scenery — inevitably, they backed down from their initial position in the face of withering publicized criticism — and, as Staples notes, folks at power programs engaging in aggressive roster management (the usual suspects shall remain nameless here) would come to see a freer version of the transfer system as a feature, not a bug. (By the way, whoever that person is should be given serious consideration as the next NCAA president. Seriously.)
From the players’ standpoint, though, it’s a classic case of be careful what you wish for, at least in the short term.
And that’s where the players must be careful. A player unhappy with his place on his team this spring needs to find someone he trusts to be honest—not someone who will tell him what he wants to hear. He might need to have a high school coach do some back-channel interest-gauging to ensure there will be a market for him should he decide to transfer. (Which sounds an awful lot like the old transfer system, except the back-channel conversations then were about making schools aware of a potential transfer as well as ensuring they had free scholarships. Now the portal takes care of the awareness part.) He may find out that he has a chance to play just as quickly by staying put. He also may learn that his particular talents aren’t as valuable as he thinks.
Before the transfer rules changed, a player had to know all this before he declared his intention to transfer. Now? He can just hop into the portal. But he needs to be careful lest he get stranded there when no new school has enough of the 25 and his old school needs to get down to the 85.
I suspect some measure of balance will return once there are a few years for both sides to adjust to the portal. Regardless, it’s more of a different world for some than others.