The name implies something from another dimension, as though anyone who enters is magically transported through time and space.
It sounds a little mysterious, a little space-agey, like something out of an alien abduction or an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” You might not know exactly what it does, but if you’re a fan of college sports, you definitely know it’s out there.
So what is this NCAA transfer portal, and why is it making so many Oregon softball players disappear?
Some demystification might be in order here, because I sense fans have become disoriented by the rush of transfer news.
Since the portal opened in October, it’s become trendy for athletes to enter their names and declare for the NCAA equivalent of free agency. Nine Oregon softball players have done so, joining thousands of other transfers from various sports.
The portal would be considerably less mysterious if we described it in plainer terms: as a database or, even better, a spreadsheet. It’s a way for athletes to enter their information and signal they’re open to being contacted by other schools, rather than asking their current school to grant a release.
Nothing sci-fi about that, is there?
What remains to be seen is how this brave new world will affect the number of transfers in college sports. It’s too early to make definitive judgments, but the anecdotal evidence suggests a spike in transfer activity related to the new portal.
“When the transfer rules changed to make it easier for the student-athletes, you saw a shift across the board,” athletic director Rob Mullens said in a recent interview. “This was long debated in our industry by the athletic directors. ...
“I think it’s a changing landscape that we’re all adjusting to.”
More than 2,000 athletes entered their names in the transfer portal during its first month of existence, Mullens said, and the number has only grown since then. I’ve heard this described as an epidemic, implying some kind of contagious disease, but I think that’s overstating the case.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a player leaving one school for another. I don’t think anyone wants a scenario like the one unfolding with Oregon softball, where players depart en masse and leave their teammates high and dry. But I’m also not sure there’s a way to prevent it without enacting a bunch of cumbersome regulations that would cause more harm than good.
The transfer boom has made one thing clear: The NCAA needs to streamline the rules surrounding immediate eligibility. Right now it’s a patchwork of appeals, releases and waivers with no consistency from one sport to the next, leaving fans and players disappointed and confused about how the rules are applied.
In general, players in sports outside of football, basketball and baseball can transfer and play immediately — as several ex-Ducks will be doing at Texas — while athletes in the other sports must sit out a year. But it’s becoming more common for players to receive immediate eligibility in football and basketball, too, for reasons that aren’t always clear.
Deciphering why some players can compete immediately and others can’t is a difficult task. When Oregon signed Terra McGowan, a freshman catcher who spent the fall at Arizona State, it was assumed she would be eligible to play for the Ducks in 2019. Only later did we learn that, because of Pac-12 rules governing in-conference transfers, McGowan wasn’t cleared to play this season.
Pac-12 rules require players who transfer within the conference to lose a year of eligibility and miss a season of competition. The first penalty is often waived, but to play immediately the player must be released by his or her original school.
Arizona State hasn’t released McGowan, sources have said, which means she’ll have to sit out this season unless something changes. You can understand the intent, but the complex matrix of conference and NCAA rules makes it hard to see any consistency from one case to the next.
Here’s a solution: Get rid of all transfer penalties. Set a deadline for each sport, and tell players they’re free to transfer and play immediately as long as they do so within the allotted time frame.
I’m sure this would be unpopular with those who see unfettered player movement as a problem. But I wonder: Is it really worse than what’s happening now?
Players are going to transfer anyway. The least we can do is bring some consistency to the process and demystify the parts that cause confusion.
And while we’re at it, maybe we can beam that portal back down to Earth.