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A federal lawsuit is challenging the NCAA's transfer rules - and cites the coaching market as evidence


Few items in the NCAA rule book are considered sacred, but the transfer rule is one of them. Move schools within the FBS level and, without a diploma or a waiver in hand, you'll have to sit out a year. That's the way it's been for as long as any of us can remember.

But earlier this week a Seattle-based law firm filed a federal lawsuit against the NCAA in Indianapolis challenging the lawfulness of the penalty year applied to transfers. As reported by Steve Berkowitz for USA Today, Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP filed a suit on behalf of punter Peter Deppe.

Deppe planned to transfer from Northern Illinois to Iowa but could not secure an NCAA waiver granting him immediate eligibility. Unable to secure a waiver, Iowa dropped Deppe and moved on to another punter who could take the field immediately.

In filing the suit, Hagens sites coaches' ability to move jobs without penalty as a double standard unfair to athletes.

“The NCAA’s limitation on the mobility of college athletes is patently unlawful,” the suit claims. “For a striking contrast, one can simply examine the unfettered mobility of the players’ coaches. Football coaches, including assistant coaches, are free to leave a school at any time they choose to take another job in the college or professional football ranks. This ability to better their own situation has allowed coaches to reap enormous financial benefits. …

“Players, however, suffer a severe penalty for transferring – the loss of a year of athletics eligibility. This can make them a very unattractive option for coaches who are under constant ‘win now’ pressure. The NCAA’s transfer rules restrain players’ ability to make the best choices for themselves, including ones based on financial considerations, academic considerations, athletics considerations, and personal circumstances.”

It's easy to see both sides' arguments. College sports could quickly become untenable if every single player operated under what was essentially a one-year contract with his school. A one-year penalty is a necessary but fair barrier of entry; it's not too harsh to deter those players who truly want or need a change of scenery (with waivers applied for those with extenuating circumstances and for those who earned the right by earning a degree), while not providing an easy out for players to push the eject button the moment things don't go their way.

But, on the other side of the table, I can see players' frustration when coaches pitch them on their specific school, only to see that coach leave without penalty shortly thereafter. The "commit to a school, not to a coach" has always come off to me as a well-meaning but hollow mantra coaches often say considering coaches are such a major factor in a player's experience -- and that players have no control over who coaches them.

It is worth noting that this Seattle firm has filed a number of lawsuits against the NCAA, the sum of which make it clear Hagens aims to overturn the every aspect of the college sports industry. In addition to overseeing settlements in the NCAA Football video game, Hagens is seeking a settlement with the NCAA in a case regarding concussions, is involved in two cases seeking benefits for athletes beyond the traditional scholarship, and is pursuing a case challenging the NCAA's scholarship limits.

Said NCAA legal chief Donald Remy: "The Deppe complaint repeats many of the same arguments made by the same law firm in other cases against the NCAA. Repeating allegations and legal theories does not make them true. As a result, the lawsuit should be dismissed."