UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – College-level ‘free agency’ good idea, even at CU, CSU

Brendon Lewis made headlines a few weeks ago. But it wasn’t because of anything the University of Colorado quarterback did in a game, or even on the field.

Lewis, who began his Buffaloes playing career in the second half of CU’s 55-23 shellacking by Texas in the 2020 Alamo Bowl and was the Buffs starting quarterback in 2021, announced that he would enter the NCAA Transfer Portal. That means he’s taking his football and going somewhere else to play his final three seasons of collegiate eligibility. 

Welcome to the club.

More than two dozen players have fled CU via the Portal since Lewis took his first snaps that December 29, including some of the Buffs’ top talent: leading rusher Jarek Broussard (to Michigan State), top wide receiver Brendan Rice (to Southern Cal), No. 1 safety Mark Perry (to Texas Christian) and best cornerback Christian Gonzalez (to Oregon).

It’s just as bleak up in Fort Collins, where new Colorado State head coach Jay Norvell has seen more than a dozen scholarship players walk away since this season began, including Dante Wright, who had caught 120 passes for more than 1,600 yards and seven touchdowns in his Rams career, and another receiver, Melquan Stovall, who had followed Norvell from Nevada.

Most of the defectors have indicated they plan to go elsewhere via the Portal.

It’s not just here, of course, and not just in football. All across America, college athletes are exercising their “free agency” rights in search of more playing time, a chance to be a starter, a winning program or different (better?) coaches. 

None, to my knowledge, have moved in hopes of finding better academics.

The NCAA Transfer Portal debuted in October 2018. It was created not for the benefit of athletes but to make administrators’ lives easier. Turns out jumping ship can be complicated, especially for the universities.

An article in the Fall 2019 issue of the NCAA’s Champion Magazine described the Portal as a “compliance tool to systematically manage the transfer process from start to finish, add more transparency to the process among schools, and empower student-athletes to make known their desire to consider other programs.” 

Here’s how it works:

Once a “student-athlete” asks a compliance administrator to place his/her name in the Portal, the school has two days to submit the information. The school may reduce or suspend athletics-aid, such as a scholarship, at the end of the term in which the athlete seeks to enter the Portal. If the “student-athlete” withdraws from the portal, the original school may return him/her to the roster and restore aid, if it chooses.

To switch without forfeiting a year of intercollegiate eligibility, a “student-athlete” in the so-called “major” sports (football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey) must request a waiver based on any of 11 criteria. The most common are “no participation opportunity,” injury or illness to the individual or a family member, financial hardship, death of a family member and diagnosis of an “education-impacting” disability.

Whatever its intended purpose, the Portal has quickly become the equivalent of free agency in professional sports.

In the Portal’s first year of operation, according to Champion Magazine, 15,000 student-athletes applied for transfers. Two-thirds were from Division I schools, about a quarter of them football players. Half of those were walk-ons hoping to receive a scholarship offer.

In major college basketball that first year, Champion reported, more than 700 players transferred, including 324 to teams eligible for participation in March Madness. (The national college player of the year in 2022, Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, had transferred from West Virginia.)

Those numbers have increased annually, which brings me back to this year’s crop that abandoned the CU and CSU football programs.

Schools that lose players after working so hard to recruit them may wish it wasn’t so easy now for a student-athlete to jump ship.  Fans certainly are chagrined when a starter departs—worse when it’s a star.

But, looking at it from the player’s point of view—and his parents’—I think the Transfer Portal is a good idea.

Everyone makes mistakes in life. If an 18-year-old chooses the wrong school for him or her, why shouldn’t he or she be allowed to try to correct their mistake?

Many students attend more than one university before graduating. Hardly anyone works the same job their entire adult life. 

Even professional athletes have the opportunity to join a different team, or different teams, during their playing careers.

So, good luck Brendon Lewis, and all the other “student-athletes” who are hoping the grass really is greener on the other side of the ball.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 14 books, eight of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.