The NCAA’s Immoral Combination of One-Year Scholarships and Transfer Restrictions

I’ve written before about problems with the NCAA’s treatment of student-athletes.

If you weren’t already convinced that college sports is in dire need of reform, consider these three recent news stories. Each raises its own questions about the rights of student-athletes.

Taken together, they expose the absurdity and unfairness of the NCAA’s policies.

Todd O’Brien vs. Phil Martelli and St. Joseph’s Basketball

Two weeks ago former St. Joseph’s reserve center Todd O’Brien wrote an article for Sports Illustrated titled, “St. Joe’s won’t release me to play at UAB and I don’t know why.” O’Brien graduated from St. Joseph’s over the summer. NCAA rules permit graduate students to transfer without having to sit out a year, so O’Brien decided to transfer to UAB for his final season to pursue a graduate degree in Public Administration.

But O’Brien has yet to suit up for the Blazers because, according to O’Brien:

when Saint Joseph’s turned in the requested paperwork to the NCAA about my transfer, school officials had selected “Yes” to the the question “Do you object to Todd O’Brien being eligible for competition this season?” Under the part that said “If yes, then why do you object” there was no reason.

Neither head coach Phil Martelli or St. Joseph’s administration has explained the reason for refusing to release O’Brien.

Other student-athletes in O’Brien’s situation might take a year off while they worked things out with their former school. But O’Brien already exhausted his fifth year of eligibility when he sat out the 2008-09 season after transferring from Bucknell to St. Joe’s.

Todd O'Brien: You probably won't see him in a UAB uniform this season. (Photo: Getty Images)

DeAnthony Arnett vs. Derek Dooley and Tennessee Football

Late last week Tennessee wide receiver DeAnthony Arnett announced his intentions to transfer to be closer to his ailing father. Arnett, a Michigan native, would like to play at Michigan or Michigan State (he has since added Notre Dame to the list), but Tennessee head football coach Derek Dooley is only willing to release him to a MAC school.

Tennessee isn’t scheduled to play Michigan, Michigan State, or Notre Dame any time soon—though the Vols are playing Akron from the MAC—so allowing Arnett to attend a school of his choosing would not mean handing him over to an opponent. And a year ago Notre Dame released offensive lineman Alex Bullard to transfer to Tennessee to be closer to his family following the death of his father. But Dooley has no interest in returning the favor.

Because of his father’s illness, Arnett has requested a hardship labor that would allow him to play immediately at his new school instead of sitting a year. Regardless of whether the NCAA decides to grant the waver, Tennessee will have to release Arnett before he can receive scholarship money from another school.

Update: According to Josh Ward of WNML in Knoxville and, Dooley has agreed to release Arnett to the school of his choice.

Michigan native DeAnthony Arnett can return home, but not on his own terms. (Photo: Dillon Collier,

The Ongoing Debate About One-Year Scholarships

On Festivus the NCAA announced a plan approved in October that would permit schools to award multi-year athletic scholarships. Currently, schools may only offer single-year scholarships to student-athletes.

Last week more than 75 schools objected to the plan, forcing the Division I Board of Directors to reconsider it at this month’s NCAA Convention. Boise State, one of the schools objecting to the plan, worries that it will give wealthy schools an even bigger advantage than they already have. Indiana State worries that new coaches could be ” ‘stuck’ with a student-athlete they no longer want.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert endorses multi-year scholarships. But his member schools are putting up a fight. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP)


The stories of Todd O’Brien and DeAnthony Arnett raise questions about the ethics and wisdom of their respective coaches:

  • Does Phil Martelli have a valid reason for blocking O’Brien’s transfer, or is he just bitter?
  • Is Derek Dooley hampering the football career of a kid that just wants to be close to his ailing dad, or is there more to the story?

Regardless of the circumstances, surely a reputation for blocking transfers won’t endear either coach to potential recruits.

But these stories raise a bigger question, one that isn’t specific to St. Joe’s or Tennessee: Why do schools have to release a player for that player to transfer, especially when that player only has a one-year scholarship?

The NCAA has a system in which a player must commit to a school but a school has no obligation to the player.

To be clear, Todd O’Brien had a scholarship waiting for him at St. Joseph’s and DeAnthony Arnett has another one-year scholarship waiting for him at Tennessee. But many other student-athletes have ended up in situations where they were unable to complete their degrees at the schools they chose to attend because of coaches who decided not to renew their scholarship. (Consider, for example, the case of former Rice football player Joseph Agnew.)

Unlike academic scholarships that say, “This scholarship is valid for four years as long as you _____ and maintain _____ ,” the decision about whether to continue an athletic scholarship is left up to the coach and athletic administration. An athlete can do everything expected of him or her in terms of practice, conditioning, and academics, and a new coach can nonetheless decide that he or she doesn’t fit the system and discontinue his or her scholarship.

If schools have no obligation to keep a student-athlete on scholarship, even if that student-athlete does everything expected of him or her, why isn’t the student-athlete free to transfer and seek a scholarship at another school?

As the above stories illustrate, a school must release a scholarship athlete before that athlete can accept an athletic scholarship at another school. And while O’Brien, as a graduate student, would have played immediately had he been released, most transfers are penalized by having to sit out a year before being eligible at their new school.

The NCAA needs to pick one or the other: one-year scholarships or transfer restrictions. If schools insist that they cannot make more than a one-year commitment to a student-athlete, student-athletes shouldn’t have to make more than a one-year commitment to a school. If a student-athlete is penalized for transferring, a school should be penalized for discontinuing a scholarship without cause.

About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.


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