The people who run big-time college sports can’t understand why we occasionally paint them as greedy control freaks, but the problem is they keep acting like greedy control freaks.
Exhibit 4,764: On Wednesday, the Big 12 voted down a proposed rule that would allow a walk-on at one conference school to walk on at another conference school without losing a year of eligibility. The so-called “Baker Mayfield rule” would have covered the rare cases when a player paying his own way at one school decides to pay his own way at another school in the conference. Mayfield, who wasn’t on scholarship at Texas Tech when he decided to walk on at Oklahoma, had to sit out the 2014 season and lost one of his four years of playing eligibility for making the move. The rule would have restored the season he lost. It also would have been the right thing to do, because a school shouldn’t have any claim over non-scholarship players who are leaving to pay tuition somewhere else. So, naturally, the rule change failed in a 5–5 vote.
Why did it fail? Take it away, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby.*
Let’s unpack that. The five schools that voted against the rule were concerned that schools would lure away players whose original schools didn’t think deserved scholarships, by offering them ... scholarships.
*I feel bad for Bowlsby here. But one of the reasons he gets paid the big bucks is to find a way to explain even the dumbest things his conference does.
School officials never have a problem with the open market when they’re paying millions for coaches, found by paying the same search firm that they paid to find their athletic director—who also makes a high six-figure salary. Yet they scream any time one of their players might benefit from a market transaction. And this isn’t even a case of offering actual money*, which NCAA rules forbid. The schools don’t want players who don’t have scholarships to be enticed with scholarships—which is perfectly within NCAA rules. In the Big 12, some apparently want the players treated like property even when they aren’t offering them any considerations in return.
Here’s a crazy thought. If you don’t want other schools to lure away your best walk-ons with the promise of scholarships, give those walk-ons scholarships.
*I guess some shadowy booster cabal could surreptitiously pay a player’s tuition to entice him to walk on somewhere else, but, again, that’s not an issue if the original school simply puts the player on scholarship. If there’s a scholarship on either side of this equation, it’s fine if transfer rules apply.
This isn’t that complicated, but rare is the simple concept that the people in charge of college sports can’t pretend is a Gordian knot. Yes, Mayfield’s case is unusual. Yes, Mayfield turned down scholarship offers from other schools—including one from East Carolina, where current Sooners offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley was working at the time. Power Five walk-ons turn down other scholarship offers all the time to play at a higher level.
If Texas Tech wanted to exert a claim over Mayfield, the Red Raiders should have had to spend one of their 85 scholarships. Would Mayfield have gotten a scholarship in the spring of 2014? Sure. But Texas Tech could have placed him on scholarship when he started the 2013 season opener. At that point, Mayfield was one of the Red Raiders’ best 22 players, let alone one of the best 85.
We know now that Texas Tech had another excellent quarterback (Davis Webb) on the roster and a future star (Patrick Mahomes) on the way. Red Raiders coach Kliff Kingsbury gambled when he waited on awarding Mayfield a scholarship. Given the quality of those other two quarterbacks, this wasn’t a bad risk. But the league should not have docked Mayfield that year unless he was on scholarship at Tech or one of the other schools in the league had offered him one. Did Oklahoma get a bargain by getting Mayfield to walk on? Sure. But the Sooners could get away with taking Mayfield as a walk-on because no comparable program offered him a scholarship. If Texas—which certainly could have used Mayfield—had offered him a scholarship, then Oklahoma would have had to offer him one, too. Had that happened, use the transfer rules designed for scholarship players. But it didn’t happen.
This decision sets up a scenario that could make the Big 12 look even worse. Mayfield led the Sooners to a league title and College Football Playoff appearance last season. He may do the same again this season. Afterward, he’ll have a choice. He could go to the NFL, which doesn’t exactly covet quarterbacks who are listed at 6' 1" but won’t be allowed to wear their cleats when they get measured at the combine. Or he could take his bachelor’s degree and transfer to another conference that will view 2014 as his redshirt year. Imagine Mayfield at Alabama. Or Oregon. Or Clemson. Or Michigan.
The Big 12 should be interested in keeping its best players in the league for as long as NCAA rules allow, but this may chase one of the league’s best to another conference. And if Mayfield winds up playing in another league, he could wind up knocking a Big 12 school out in a playoff game. Or he could help another school lock up the fourth spot in the playoff and possibly shut out the Big 12. That might be karmic justice for a league that couldn’t do the decent thing out of fear that a player paying his own way might actually benefit from the transaction.