Dabo Swinney, Champion of All Things Amateur, went on a tirade against the current state of the NCAA transfer portal at Clemson’s signing day event earlier today. Swinney made his stance on paying student athletes clear several years ago, when he publicly declared that he would leave coaching if college athletes ever got paid. Well, here we are — and more importantly, here he still is. Today’s complaint addressed this year’s incredibly full transfer portal in what appears to be an extension of Swinney’s campaign to Keep College Football Amateur.
It’s not that Swinney’s statement was completely incorrect. He pointed out his belief that the transfer cycle will lower graduation rates across college football, which hovered just below 80 percent for bowl-bound teams in 2020. He might be right — with transferred credits and changing schools, there is a decreased focus on the academic piece of student athlete life. Does he have that same problem, though, with students who leave early for the draft without graduating? If not, the issue doesn’t lie in the concept of graduation rates, but of student athletes forgoing what is currently seen as the “right way” to do it in college football — put your head down, grind, and hope to see some playing time when coach comes calling.
The NIL changes this (which Dabo may have foreseen), with different schools able to offer students different opportunities. And this is seen as a negative development by some influential figures in the sport rather than being acknowledged for what it is — an inevitable change. And change is hard, but complaining about it isn’t going to reverse it. Coaches are going to need to learn how to work with this — it’s just another recruiting tool, same as big-money schools forking over blank checks for facilities and perks. And if coaches bringing in salaries like Swinney’s aren’t able to adapt to this new era, they probably shouldn’t be making that kind of money.
When Swinney says he takes issue with coaches “manipulating young people” and “tampering” with the system, I’m confused on what he thinks is different in the transfer situation than in the normal recruitment process for high school kids? Plenty of coaches make promises that don’t come true. You want to talk about manipulation, how about Brian Kelly eating three servings of barbecue at a recruit’s house an hour before the news that he was taking a new job broke? With his suggestion of making transfer students sit out a year of eligibility that they gain back upon graduation, Swinney removes some of the decision-making power from the hands of the student athletes for…what? His view of the way things should be? His disdain for athletes who aren’t happy to play backup? His fear of the transfer portal as a recruiting tool available to his rivals?
Sure, there is an unorthodox amount of athletes in the transfer portal this year. But when changes come, it doesn’t have to spell out disaster. Perhaps giving student athletes more independence and autonomy will turn out to be a real positive in the college football world. These kids are, after all, choosing to play a sport that puts their bodies and minds at serious risk. While I agree, of course, that coaches should build character and encourage personal as well as athletic growth, there’s a line that should be drawn between coaching and controlling. Commitments come and go in high school, verbal and written, and no one bats an eye at 18-year-olds making such a significant decision. But when they’re 20 and they want to see some time off the bench, suddenly it’s a problem that there are “no consequences” for their decisions, as Swinney put it this morning.
With the amount in this day and age that is demanded of student athletes — and with the extra games that will no doubt be added to their schedules as the playoff expands in the coming years — punishing a player for choosing what he believes is the best decision for him at the time is not the way to go, academics aside. Coaches and schools should give student athletes the resources they need to make these decisions for themselves and be able to see the long-term effects of earning a degree, but to pretend that this is all some sort of affront to college football is ridiculous. This sport is ridiculous. These kids basically work a full time job and go to school.
And if Swinney is right about the transfer portal, it’ll work itself out. Student athletes will learn the hard way that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side — if that’s the case. There’s the learning experience he wants. And if the grass is, in fact, greener on the other side — if the transfer portal works to an athlete’s advantage — why punish or limit him? He has the right to transfer schools just as much as any other college student in this country if he feels that some place is not the right fit for him.
I do believe that Dabo’s heart is in the right place — he wants what’s best for the student athletes’ development, but he also wants what’s best for his program. And as notoriously avoidant of the transfer portal as he is, one has to wonder whether he’s feeling anxious about having to adapt to a new system of recruiting.