The Light on the Other Side of the Transfer Portal
June 16, 2020 4:45 AM
by John Hook
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The Portal.

For the small number of hepatologists in our country the portal relates to the transverse fissure on the underside of the liver where most of the blood vessels enter.

For the average person, the portal is a way to describe any door or entrance. 

For those of us who enjoy movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Portal is an interdimensional gateway that connects one part of the Multiverse to another, and was used with great success by the Avengers towards the conclusion of “Avengers: Endgame.”

But to the college sports fans among us, the Portal can be the heights of anticipation or the depths of despair depending on whether your team is gaining or losing a player. Especially in the highly visible sport of college football. 

What seems amazing – especially during these dark pandemic times when we have more than the usual amount of time to think about these things – is that the NCAA Transfer Portal has only been in existence since Oct. 15, 2018. It hasn’t even been around for two years. Yet mentioning its name to any college sports fan is an easy way to elicit a fairly strong reaction. You would think we’ve been living with this for decades. Heck, if you had asked me at this time last year I would have gladly told you what I didn’t like about it.

Well, I changed my mind – I am now the happy parent of a Portal user. I watched our son walk into the dark abyss of the Portal only to find out that there is light at the other end.

That’s right, I can confirm from first-hand knowledge that the Portal is OK. Although it’s not perfect, it is a good thing, and is a big improvement over the previous process that was used when a student-athlete wanted to transfer.

Our son entered the Portal after playing his freshman season of football at Wagner College – a Division 1 FCS school on Staten Island. There were several reasons why he wanted to transfer to a different college, but the overarching theme was Wagner wasn’t a good match for him at this time. 

If you are a non-athlete college student and realize that either the college you are attending is not the best fit for you, or that there is a different university that would be a better fit, you just change schools. You tell your current school that you’re leaving and you transfer to your new school. Yes, there will be paperwork involved, but you are the one who is driving the proverbial bus. You can jump right in and start studying whatever you want to study. Which is what we desire: freedom of choice. We want to be able to change jobs, change apartments or houses, change cars and change phones for the better – when we decide. All of which is a good thing.

For college student-athletes though, this is not the case, nor has it been the case. If you play a sport in college and want to continue playing that sport when you switch schools, there are many hoops that you must jump through. The NCAA’s “2019-20 Guide For Four-Year Transfers” is 23 pages long and contains links and references to multiple other resources – all of which a student must know and follow or face consequences. The NCAA itself acknowledges that a student-athlete’s decision to transfer to another school is “often difficult.”

And that is just for Division I student-athletes at four-year colleges. There is also a guide for student-athletes at two-year colleges and then additional information for both Division II and III schools. (Note: the Portal is only mandatory for Division I student-athlete transfer requests – it is optional for Division II and Division III student-athletes.)

All of that is because young adults who happen to play sports decide they want to switch colleges, something research shows more than 37% of ALL college students do at least once over a six-year period.

And that is how the Portal was born. 

In the old days of Division I sports (less than two years ago!), if a student-athlete wanted to change schools, they had to get permission from their current school – starting with their coach. It was permission that their current school was not obligated to grant. Of course, the student-athlete couldn’t be held as an academic hostage. Even if they weren’t given athletic permission to transfer, they still could, but if they had an athletics scholarship at their current school they couldn’t be given one at their new school. So they were somewhat of an athletic hostage.

If they were able to get permission to transfer, then the student-athlete had to have their current school contact each school to which the student-athlete was interested in transferring – something you can imagine might not be a high priority for the athletics department. Then began the byzantine correspondence – some requiring handwritten information – between compliance administrators at the schools. Faxing, scanning and emailing non-uniform transfer tracers was the inefficient method of the time. It’s a wonder any student-athletes ever completed a transfer! 

The Portal changes that.

First, once a student-athlete decides they want to change schools, they notify their current school and that school has two business days to submit the student-athlete’s information into the Portal. The student-athlete controls the decision.

Second, the Portal is available for any other school in the country to see. The student-athlete can contact any school they want and those schools can easily verify that they can talk to and interact with that student-athlete as a potential transfer. 

During the 2018-19 academic year there were 302,000 student-athletes competing in Divisions I and II, and 15,000 entered their names in the Portal. At 5% that’s slightly less than the six-year average transfer rate of 6.2% for all college students. That’s assuming that everyone who entered their name in the Portal does in fact transfer – which doesn’t always happen. Of those 15,000 student-athletes, around 10,000 were from Division I schools, and of those 10,000 about 2,500 were football players.

The following year one of those football players was our son, who found a new home at the University at Buffalo. UB is an AAU member school and plays football in the Division 1 FBS MAC conference, both of which are very exciting for our son. As was his trip through the Portal.

Because the Portal is accessible by a number of people, in our information-driven society the list often finds its way to the public at large. For high-profile student-athletes that results in their names being tossed around as fodder for the news cycle. But as a compliance tool to systematically manage collegiate student-athlete transfers the Portal is wonderful for the thousands of student-athletes who just want to find a better place for themselves.



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