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Federal Court Upholds NCAA Transfer Rule

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on June 28, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

An academic institution's ability to hold a student-athlete hostage for a year after they transfer to another academic institution protects "the character of intercollegiate athletics," according to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. A football player had challenged the NCAA's transfer rule, which bars transferring athletes from competing for their new schools for a year, claiming it violated federal anti-trust laws.

The court disagreed, ruling that the "year-in-residence requirement is an eligibility rule clearly meant to preserve the amateur character of college athletics and is therefore presumptively procompetitive." Here's what that means.

Procompetitive Rules

The transfer rule, allegedly designed to dissuade one school from "poaching" players from another school, forces an athlete to fulfill "a residence requirement of one full academic year (two full semesters or three full quarters)" before being eligible to play for the new school. (A previous rule that allowed schools to block transfers was recently rescinded.) No such rule exists for coaches, athletic department staff, or, say, members of the school band.

While Peter Deppe, a punter who wanted to transfer from Northern Illinois University to the University of Iowa, claimed the rules violate the Sherman Act because student athletes would receive better scholarships if they could transfer more freely, the Seventh Circuit relied on Supreme Court language that essentially says that any rule the NCAA could come up with regarding student-athlete eligibility can't be anti-competitive. "It is reasonable to assume that most of the regulatory controls of the NCAA are justifiable means of fostering competition among amateur athletic teams," the Court said in NCAA v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma, "and therefore procompetitive because they enhance public interest in intercollegiate athletics."

"The NCAA plays a crucial role in the maintenance of a revered tradition of amateurism in college sports" according to the Supreme Court. The Court continues that the NCAA "needs ample latitude to play that role" and "the preservation of the student-athlete in higher education adds richness and diversity to intercollegiate athletics and is entirely consistent with the goals of the Sherman Act." The Seventh Circuit took that idea and ran with it, essentially claiming courts don't need to review the NCAA's eligibility rules. "There may not be such a thing as a student-athlete," Judge Diane Schwerm Sykes wrote, "if it was not for the NCAA rules requiring class attendance, and thus no detailed analysis would be necessary to deem such rules procompetitive." Under this amount of deference, it's hard to imagine an eligibility rule that wouldn't pass anti-trust muster.

Professional and Amateur Rules

The court also raised the boogeyman of professionalism, saying that the ability of a student-athlete to transfer from one school where they don't get paid to play to another school where they also won't get paid to play would destroy amateurism as we know it:

Without it student-athletes could be "traded" from year to year like professional athletes. A college player could begin the season playing for one school and end the season playing for its rival. Uninhibited transfers with immediate eligibility to play would risk severing the athletic and academic aspects of college sports, threatening the character of intercollegiate athletics. The year-in-residence rule guards against that risk and thus is "clearly meant to help maintain the 'revered tradition of amateurism in college sports.'"

"Without transfer restrictions," the court asserted, "the players in these high-revenue sports could be traded like professional athletes." Of course, they wouldn't be professional athletes. If that were the case, they would likely have stronger grounds to challenge such rules. Instead, the NCAA's assertion of amateurism, and the court's deference to that assertion, forecloses any real analysis of its regulations on athletes.

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