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Shea Patterson transferred to Michigan from Ole Miss, currently under NCAA probation that includes a two-year bowl ban, in December. It is now late April and while a decision from the NCAA regarding his appeal for immediate eligibility appears imminent, this lengthy saga has drawn attention to the much broader issue of NCAA transfers in football.
Transfers, unless they are graduate transfers, typically must sit a year.
Patterson, along with several teammates who also transferred, believes he was lied to by former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze, members of the football staff and athletic department personnel. He contends he was misled during the recruiting process in 2016 regarding the breadth of the NCAA violations.
Michigan’s compliance department filed a waiver appeal with the NCAA on Patterson’s behalf and attempted to prove “egregious behavior” on the part of Ole Miss’ misinformation campaign that led him to transfer.
The NCAA working group has recommended some changes and tweaks to the transfer rule this week, and the Division I Council is expected to vote on them in June. The changes might not be as widespread as some college sports analysts might like, but they would be a start.
But Patterson’s appeal will be evaluated by the NCAA based on its current rules.
Several college sports observers, however, believe that when a program is on NCAA probation, players should be able to transfer without the penalty of sitting a season. If that were the case, this four-month NCAA process pitting Michigan and Patterson against Ole Miss could have been avoided.
“I’m probably more jaded — it’s an easy decision,” said E. David Ridpath, associate professor of sports administration at Ohio University and president of The Drake Group, the purpose of which is to defend the academic integrity of collegiate sports. “The kid transferred. They’ve gone on probation. Whatever Ole Miss allegedly did or didn’t do shouldn’t restrict him from playing anywhere else. It’s not like he went to Mississippi State or Alabama. The chances of these teams (Michigan and Ole Miss) facing each other is minimal. Ole Miss seems to be intimating there were no violations (in terms of misleading Shea and other transfers). I’m highly skeptical. I’m not sure I believe that.
“Shea Patterson wants to play football and he should have the right to play immediately. I would like to think there’s going to be nicer, benevolent people who will decide that a player should be allowed to participate immediately. I am virtually certain someone at Ole Miss led him astray. I have no proof. But there’s always this thing about minimizing these violations. There were probably people (at Ole Miss) saying it won’t be as bad as you might think. I don’t think you ever say that. That was just not right. I don’t think they had any reason to speculate and you should never say that."
ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who played basketball at Duke and is a lawyer, has been outspoken about the NCAA’s treatment of student-athletes since he was one.
Bilas attacks the notion the NCAA preaches that student-athletes are like other students, while in football and men’s basketball, the two biggest financial earners, the rules are restrictive when players want to transfer.
“I’m probably more on the philosophical side,” Bilas said. “As you know, the NCAA falls all over themselves to say athletes are students first and they happen to be athletes. They are not employees. If that’s true, then there should be no restriction to where they go and receive aide immediately. Any transfer restrictions are equipped with what essentially is a non-compete element in a contract.
“If Shea Patterson wants to leave in the middle of the season and take a scholarship at a crosstown rival, he should be able to do so without restriction and without his former school having any say on where he goes.”
Last week, Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork said the school had “no choice” but to file an objection to Michigan’s request for Patterson’s appeal. This opened the door for Patterson’s attorney, Thomas Mars, to publicly dismantle Ole Miss. He merely picked up where he left off after representing former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt in a defamation suit against the school settled last year. He also put the university in a position to issue a public apology it said it would never make.
Ole Miss apologized last October for spreading lies that NCAA violations took place under Nutt’s watch as head coach.
“If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought Ole Miss hired Pinocchio to write its response to Michigan’s waiver request,” Mars told The Detroit News last week.
There is interest in the Patterson story for multiple reasons, but it comes at a time when there has been much discussion about rehabbing the transfer rule. According to analysis from Ann Arbor-based Joyce Julius, Patterson and Mars combined for more than 1,000 mentions nationally on print, television and the Internet, mostly in the last week.
High-profile publications have been following this case and that boosted the exposure for Patterson and Mars.
“In the world of college football reporting, it certainly made a splash,” said Eric Wright, president of Joyce Julius.
And the boost in numbers came because of Ole Miss’ decision to object to Michigan’s waiver appeal.
Bilas said Ole Miss perpetuated a bad situation by going that route, a route that ultimately could have been avoided if players from programs under probation could freely transfer without penalty.
“Is it that hard to believe that Shea Patterson did not fully understand that could negatively impact his career going forward if they get hit with penalties?” Bilas said. “Why is that on Shea Patterson when any assistant coach could get up and leave? A paid employee could leave for greener pastures, but the players have to break all the rocks.
“From what I understand it’s reputational. They’re not in any way, shape or form agreeing he was misled or he didn’t have his eyes open. To me, that’s almost like a no-fault divorce. Just let the kid go. Don’t contest it. It’s never a good look when this is discussed publicly. The school will always lose. If the school and player lose, maybe the school is happy about that outcome. But I’ve also never understood why the player can’t transfer in conference or to a team on your schedule. They’re not leaving with the formula for Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
Student-athletes are rarely called on to offer opinions on rules that affect them.
Grant Newsome, a Michigan offensive lineman currently recovering from a devastating knee injury suffered during the 2016 season, is bright, informed and aware that he has a social media platform that he frequently uses to elevate awareness of student-athlete issues.
He appreciates the current rule that requires a transfer to sit a season.
“If you don’t have any penalty it would be a dangerous situation,” Newsome said. “You get to a program freshman year, you have second thoughts — it would become this crazy free-agency situation. It would be non-stop recruiting of athletes 24/7. It’s a good buffer now. You have a bad practice, or you get mad at your coach, you have to think about it. You have to wait a year and go through that recruiting process again.”
But when there are other factors involved, like the one Patterson transferred from at Ole Miss, Newsome believes the decision is cut and dry. And he believes the NCAA focus should be on the coaches who commit the violations, not hampering the immediate eligibility of players.
“I’m 100-percent behind, if a program has been (penalized) by the NCAA for certain violations, such as the ones Ole Miss is under now, there should be no penalty for a player to transfer,” Newsome said. “The system is comical now. You look at high-profile cases with coaches who got in trouble and immediately left, it should be a universal rule that if a coach does something bad enough and puts the program on probation, the athletes should be able to leave.
“It’s completely unfair to punish student-athletes who have not been involved or not known about these recruiting violations and have to stay while the coach gets a fat (television) analyst job or another high-profile coaching job. You shouldn’t be putting kids in this position where he has to go out and hire a lawyer and be under that financial burden along with the emotional burden of playing out this fight in the pseudo legal situation that’s not even an issue.
“If anything, there needs to be punishment that needs to be added to the coaches who do this. It’s incredulous we allow coaches who commit violations to go other avenues, another college coaching job, the NFL or broadcasting. If they get caught, it’s a slap on the wrist.”
Bilas has a huge issue with the NCAA saying student-athletes are just like the rest of their fellow students, because that’s ultimately not how they’re treated.
“It’s OK for any other student to leave and they can go and accept aide,” Bilas said. “I’m not talking about paying players, but we’re saying they’re amateur students to be treated like any other student but they’re not permitted the same mobility as any other student. And sports are treated differently. That kills the NCAA argument that the athletes are all the same. They’re not all the same.
“Not all players are leaving because of playing time. Maybe they don’t like the coach or the school isn’t a good fit. We can’t fit them in a neat little box and complain these guys aren’t sticking it out like they used to. That’s not the way the world is anymore. It’s not the Army.”
Several Big Ten coaches said recently that allowing players to transfer freely would “open a can of worms.” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said he has never blocked a player who wanted to transfer, believes in the rule that he should sit a season.
But he also thinks the rule could be adjusted in a way that makes the most sense to him.
“I would put academic benchmarks on where if a young man in our game transferred, I would give him that year back in the back end and allow him to go to graduate school,” Fitzgerald said. “So let’s say a kid transfers in his second year, great, let him go, he sits out year three and he gets that year back and he gets to play for that team he goes to play for and he gets an opportunity to go to school. At least in my opinion, that’s what this is all about.
“Let’s not say he’s transferring for academic reasons. He’s transferring because of football. But let’s make sure he backs it up and goes and gets that year back and have a chance to get his graduate degree. And at the end of the day, we’re going to be able to use that a lot longer than we’ll be able to use having a helmet on.”
But what if there’s a program on probation and a player wants to move on and have a chance to play in a bowl game or for the national championship?
“In special circumstances and they were dealt a hand that they weren’t expecting and things change in a program, then maybe I can see it,” said first-year Nebraska coach Scott Frost, who also believes transfers should sit a season. “If you sign up to play for a coach and they leave, if the program is on probation is another example, then maybe they could look into some flexibility there.
“But I’d just hate to see it be the Wild West and kids being able to jump from one school to another to another. It would make it really hard to manage rosters and coach kids. You even talk about if they have a certain GPA being able to transfer, but that would give the wrong head coaches motivation to make sure their kids don’t have a high GPA, unless you want all football players in the country in advanced physics so they keep under a certain GPA.”
Ridpath does not know what changes to the transfer rule might actually occur, but he does believe the current discussion and proposals might be positives for Patterson and the other Ole Miss transfers.
“Shea Patterson might be in a good position in that the NCAA is going to look bad if they restrict them and a few months later the transfer rules change,” Ridpath said. “I may be naive, but I think they’re a bit boxed in a corner despite Ole Miss’ last gasp, ‘Oh, no, we didn’t do that.’"
"Things like this shouldn’t be a discussion. I think the NCAA can help themselves by letting him go. My thought is he should get a fair shake. He should be able to transfer from the program on probation and play right away.”
That is Newsome’s perspective, as well.
“People forget, the NCAA is supposedly working to better the student-athletes,” Newsome said. “The NCAA does all these ads about bettering us, but time and time again when they have an opportunity to help individual student-athletes with reasonable cases they don’t.
“Knock on wood it will happen for Shea.”
When Bilas was a student-athlete at Duke, he was one of two athletes to participate on an NCAA long-range planning committee that included college commissioners and athletic directors. Bilas shared a recruiting story of his visit to Iowa where Lute Olson was then the head basketball coach.
Olson showed Bilas the plans for the new Carver-Hawkeye Arena and his contract for 10 years, clearly suggesting that he would be there for the long term. Bilas chose Duke, and Olson the next year left for Arizona. Bilas shared with the committee that because of that experience, he believed a student-athlete should be able to transfer without penalty if he wants to follow his coach. They scoffed at him.”
He fast-forwarded to today and a situation like Patterson’s.
“It’s an embarrassment to the NCAA process, this idea it takes so long to resolve it,” Bilas said. “The NCAA claims they’re involved and yet they’re not. It’s really unfair to the player. I don’t know anybody who thinks we have a good process right now, but they’re unwilling to say what this is.”
“That was more than 35 years ago when I was on that committee. They’ve dragged their feet. And we are still running in place or treading water on this issue. That’s a long time. I know for a fact it was brought up a long time ago because I brought it up.”
Bottom line, Bilas said it’s foolish to think that by altering the transfer rule there will be a mass exodus of players because there just aren’t that many landing spots. But if a program is under probation, this should be an easy call.
“If they’re looking for exceptions to a general rule that you can’t leave unless the school says so, I don’t think they should have any restrictions if a program is on probation,” Bilas said. “If you’re looking for the most equitable situation under the current system, if a school is under probation, all the kids should be able to go and be immediately eligible. There’s a price to be paid (by the program on probation) having players leaving.”