This is Not About Football, Only, It’s an Issue for All Teams
This isn’t necessarily about the baseball program, though the event that triggered the response was from that team. Freshman Catcher Brody Donay has officially put in his bid to hit the bricks and head for other collegiate program pastures. While there is some serious level of disappointment with his decision to hit the transfer portal, the actual event is not completely a surprise. From a baseball perspective Donay was an adequate to average defensive catcher who needed some experience behind the plate. At his height 6’5”, he was much better suited to be kitted out with the other mitt of baseball, namely the first baseman’s. Behind the plate it just seemed awkward and too many dropped balls on strike three meant too many opportunities to lose the out and steal 1st base. Those are player personnel details that we won’t get bogged down into, but the plight of the baseball program has shined a bright light on the realities of college sports in the Transfer Portal and NIL eras.
In the case of this particular look, it’s actually the baseball team that suffers the most, but the problem extends to all of the other college sports that have professional next steps; football, and both basketball programs. So, let’s look at the problem from a higher altitude and maybe deal with some of the challenges the coaches face keeping program momentum going.
The Transfer Portal is a Double-Edged Sword
Sorry for the cliché, but folks, really the court ordered ability for collegiate athletes (mostly on scholarship) to place their names into a talent pool of available players has implemented near free-agency for college sports. It’s also presented some very sticky and difficult collusion accusations and suspicions that are largely unavoidable. It is very suspicious that the rumor mill lights up with Player A going to Team B, before Player A has even formally entered his/her name into the portal. Reporters don’t generally get information from thin air, so someone said something to someone else. This might be saying the “shhh” part out loud, but the problem has always been a looming threat that may very well be blooming like poison ivy in the presumed grove of fruit trees.
There is an unfortunate dark art that is increasingly necessary to managing all of this and still winning. No one sane or rational is turning a blind eye to past personnel related offenses in NCAA sports. The occasional poor behavior has been shouted from the roof tops in the past. The problem is that the old rule set is beginning to disintegrate like cheap paper in a torrent of water. The written and unwritten rules that kept the madness to a few programs and a dull roar are all quickly being erased by either practical operations or outside decisions like the federal courts.
The Transfer Portal might be popular with the players and a few coaches, but it would be very instructive to see a nice anonymous survey performed within the actual athletic departments of the collegiate sports programs to find out how they really feel about the advent of the portal. The suspicion is that none of the parties are really benefiting from “collegiate free-agency” on the whole. Many players who bolt for the portal end up in a sort of limbo, and those that find landing spots often filter down to lower programs. One wonders how many of those players have completed their degree work, or will complete their degrees at the next institution. Remember: the NCAA’s stated primary goal in governing collegiate athletics is the education of the student-athlete, not professional sports preparation.
The entire process has made it exceedingly complicated for programs because they are now expected to continually recruit their own rosters every season and especially off-season. At some point it would be wise for programs to revamp their scholarship policies and commitments. Several decades ago, scholarships were converted from up to 4-year bidirectional commitments, and it might be time to return to that format. At least it would make it possible for a program to recover the funds expended in the name of the student-athlete by charging them for the departure. Of course, wealthier programs will help pay the freight but the reality is that something substantive needs to be done to slow down the hemorrhaging. The reality is that many transferring players actually get themselves into less advantageous situations instead of improving their standing in some ideal notion that they are holding in their thought patterns.
In the case of Donay, the word is that he’s gone to Florida. Which was one of those overly fast offers that makes you wonder.
Early Outs to Professional Drafts Cut the Heads Off of Teams in the Twilight
The past two seasons have been devastating for the baseball program. The 2022 draft pulled six starting players, most of whom were still eligible to play for the Hokies into peanut sized minor league contracts. This season every player lost to the pros had remaining eligibility. Technically the MLB is not supposed to be able to draft players who haven’t been in a 4-year program for less than three season, but with redshirting and now the portal, that calculation is becoming difficult to manage. The upshot is that a player finishing up his redshirt sophomore year is eligible for the MLB draft, even with two years remaining in collegiate ball.
The end result is the Coaching staff making the most of it by dealing with teams of perpetually low-level talent where half of the team has less than two years of experience and the other half looks like a mixture of transfer in talent, around for a season, and players who are not attracting serious draft attention. The biggest most popular programs, managed to syphon off transfers, and keep enough experienced players on the roster to play well into the playoffs, but they also eventually lose their best players to the MLB draft.
We’ve already talked about that professional reality. The sad part is that most players leaving have not completed their degrees, and might never get a chance to do so. The secret of professional baseball is the radical difference in compensation between the Minor Leagues and Major Leagues and the reality that most MLB players never make it out of the minor leagues. It does speak to the egos of the players and their supporting cast of “adults” who should know better, but it also shows a real lack of understanding of the business and compensation level of the business. The truth is a bit more than disappointing when understood by the fans of these young people. Minor league baseball players get their first contract - CBS News
Now, that does lead to an opportunity and another double-edged sword dangling precariously over the collective head of college sports, and that’s Name, Image, and Likeness contracts. NIL deals can be quite lucrative, even for non-revenue sports when those sports are attracting audience attention, like Women’s Basketball, Softball, and Baseball (the 2022 baseball season was rare tonic for the Hokies). The reality is that the NIL organizations should be able to beat out, at least, A and AA ball on the financial side of the ledger. Smart management of those deals could then help graduating seniors with degrees to either make their way through the tiny compensation levels of Minor League Ball, or provide a nest egg for moving on with life outside of the sport. Just take a look at this interesting piece from Athletic Director U on the issue, and understand that the entire process is in its infancy. How Much Is NIL Really Worth To Student Athletes? (athleticdirectoru.com)
Again, the Athletic Departments are handed serious headaches when star players, being counted on to drive revenues for the program – not just themselves – end up heading for professional dreams before they complete their eligibility.
Is There a Toolbox and Tools Available to Fix the Rapidly Disintegrating Machine?
If you get the feeling that college sports are beginning to fly apart, you might very well be catching on to something. It’s not just at the big revenue parts of programs, either. However, the direct association with available professional sports at the next level seems to be the biggest functional connection.
The reasons why student-athletes transfer are largely individual, but there are some common elements. The player thinks that they can do better in some other situation. Maybe the coaching staff has changed and the missing interpersonal relationship overrides the institution? Maybe the NIL money is better in another conference or program? The list of questions gets long and boring, but there are some real issues that present themselves to the sports fan base. The big question of how important money and fame are over consistency and education will always dog collegiate athletics.
More often than not the transfer or early out draft choice is directly related to the promises of monetary compensation. The tool to fix the problem of the rapidly disintegrating teams will largely be up to a responsible body of people with NCAA, Athletic Department, and even Congressional ties to come up with a coherent national set of rules that resets the financial and compensatory models of collegiate athletics.
Some areas that desperately need to be addressed:
- Standardizing athletic scholarships across the de facto league that is formed by the NCAA at all levels. Recreate the full four-year grant, and make the contract bi-directional so that both the AD and the student-athlete are responsible.
- Structuring NIL contracts to fit within the standardized scholarship contract establishing a trust where the bulk of the NIL compensation is held in a trust until the Scholarship Contract is fulfilled by playing out eligibility, or paying off the contract.
- Explicitly ban recruiting of active scholarship players and enforce compliance with fines and sanctions. Establish a “cooling off” period where players who enter the transfer portal must actually leave the institution before engaging in any recruiting contacts with other programs.
- Players who leave early for professional sports must pay off their scholarship and NIL contracts. Note: that lawsuit is just waiting to happen. No NIL company is going to just happily let a player head for some other team and some other contract vehicle. Wait until “Football Man” gets sued for splitting from a modest contract in order to go make the big bucks in the SEC or B1G. That one is looming like a midnight freight train with a broken horn.
- Reciprocate for charging players for trying their respective pro-drats and not being drafted. Allow them to keep their eligibility and a restructured scholarship to continue to play their sport. The old saw about hiring an agent is pretty much nonsense, now. (It always was sort of an abusive rule, but now with NIL and marketing agents for NIL deals cropping up, it’s a complete nonsense.)
- Frankly, compensatory consideration between programs is also an idea that’s come. If Player A transfers to Team B, Team B should have to pay for Player A’s abandoned scholarship and NIL if coordinated by the Athletic Department.
Those are just some ideas, but the fundamental reality is that coaches of more than a few sports are becoming permanent full-time recruiters chasing after individuals in an increasingly difficult talent pool, where a quality environment, promise of a high value diploma, and the teaching of sportsmanship and teamwork just don’t make the sale. That might be the worst outcome of the flood of money coming into college sports more than anything. It’s turned the whole thing into a chase for the big bucks for Administrators, Coaches, and Players. The whole educating the student-athlete angle seems to have basically evaporated. That is actually very sad, if you think about it for very long.
It’s nearing the end of July, and the Roster Reviews are on the way.
The big future news is that JC Price and Fontel Mines – the Old Hokie and the Old Hoo, have been gathering in the commitments for players for 2024, 2025, and beyond. Let’s hope they stick, because it’s a solid list of hope for the future.