How college football’s era of unlimited free transfers works, and how we got here

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How college football’s era of unlimited free transfers works, and how we got here

College football’s transfer portal re-opens this week in a climate with fewer restrictions to player movement than ever before, and after months of confusion, the NCAA could be close to simplifying its transfer rules for good to keep the current player freedoms in place long-term.

At a meeting that begins Wednesday, the NCAA’s Division I Council will have an opportunity to adopt emergency legislation that would allow all undergraduate athletes to transfer and play immediately as long as they meet specific academic requirements, formally ushering in an era of unlimited free transfers for most athletes.

The previous NCAA rule allowed every athlete the ability to transfer one time and play right away, but it also required that athletes sit out for a year before playing for any subsequent transfer. That rule took effect in April 2021, just two months before the organization dropped its rules barring athletes from profiting off their name, image and likeness (NIL) rights. Together, those changes helped create an environment that college sports lifers have compared to free agency in professional sports.

But the NCAA intended to draw a hard line at one free transfer for undergraduates under the new system, and when some high-profile athletes applied for waivers to transfer a second time without the sit-out penalty and were rebuffed, high-profile public relations battles ensued between schools themselves and the NCAA. One especially public example was North Carolina’s fight to get receiver Tez Walker eligible, which the NCAA relented on in October citing “new information” but not without harsh words for the school’s aggressive approach to campaigning for its player.

Those conflicts came to a head in early December 2023, when a coalition of seven state attorneys general sued the NCAA in the U.S. District Court for the northern district of West Virginia, arguing that the NCAA’s rule requiring multi-time transfer athletes to sit out a year in residence violates antitrust law. Federal judge John Preston Bailey issued a temporary restraining order that was later converted to a preliminary injunction allowing all multi-time transfer athletes in winter and spring sports to play immediately without fear of reprisal. The NCAA soon agreed to extend immediate eligibility to multi-time transfers in football and other fall sports who move on before the end of the 2023-24 academic calendar, in order to keep its rules consistent across sports.

Since then, athletes and schools have been operating as if those freedoms would remain in place indefinitely. But the official status of transfers past the 2023-24 academic year remained uncertain — until this week.

The new transfer rule would retain the structure of transfer windows, which differ by sport but require that transferring athletes notify their current school of their intent to transfer during a designated period of time. Graduate transfers can enter the transfer portal at any time but need to be in the portal by the end of their sport-specific transfer window in order to be immediately eligible for the following season. The new system is also expected to retain some form of academic benchmarks athletes must meet to leave their current school.

No athlete can transfer in the middle of his or her sport’s season and be eligible to compete on a second team in the same season. The SEC also continues to enforce a conference-level rule preventing players from transferring to another school within the conference during the spring window without sitting out a season. But otherwise, the next two weeks bring opportunity, uncertainty and a historic variety of options.

(Photo: Richard Rodriguez / Getty Images)