NCAA, officials show more concern for themselves than student-athletes ... again

You may have noticed that the latest red-alert, all-wonks-on-deck, DefCon 1 crisis in college athletics involves graduate transfers.

NCAA officials, college administrators and other power brokers are scandalized by the fact that student-athletes who fulfill the student part of the equation by earning bachelor's degrees are actually exercising full freedom of transfer movement in record numbers. Immediate eligibility – kind of like coaches switching jobs – seems to be a strong attraction to players who fulfill the NCAA's stated goal of graduating. And it seems to be bringing out the inner control freak in the folks who run College Sports Inc.

The NCAA seems unconcerned about Derryck Thornton graduating high school early to play for Duke in 2015. (AP)
The NCAA seems unconcerned about Derryck Thornton graduating high school early to play for Duke in 2015. (AP)

New NCAA vice president for governance Kevin Lennon said in late April that possibly amending the graduate transfer rule is near the top of the list of issues facing college sports. And last week in Irving, Texas, for the College Football Playoff management committee meetings, there was additional tut-tutting about the scourge of empowered college graduates moving freely from one school to the next.

"I don't think it fits the core values of intercollegiate athletics," said Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson.

When asked for specifics on the conflict with core values, Benson said, "It just doesn't feel right."

So there you have it. Bad feel. Benson is a smart man with a lot of sound thinking on various college athletics issues, but this was not his finest sound bite.

Of course, it also should be noted that Benson's Sun Belt is a likely poaching ground for grad transfers moving to bigger programs – not a likely landing spot for them. So those might be the words of a man whose ox is being gored more than anything else.

There also was this from Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott: "Personally, I've been concerned with the incidence of it, the numbers. The number of graduate transfers isn't measuring up to the number of graduate degrees."

In other words, players aren't terribly interested in getting the master's degree – which normally requires two years of class work – they allegedly transferred to pursue. That's a more tangible concern than "bad feel."

Still, it feels as if the power brokers are majoring in minors here simply in an effort to further exert control over the athletes. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, for one, wants to know why there's outrage over this issue during a period of seismic change in college sports.

"Of the things we have in front of us to deal with in the next year or two, this doesn't rise to great concern for me," Swarbrick said. "I'm not sure where all the interest in that comes from."

Swarbrick is right. If College Sports Inc. wants to tackle academic issues, it should look at the front end of the college experience more than worrying about what players with degrees are doing.

This is not breaking news, but the one-and-done basketball matriculation from the NCAA to the NBA is the bigger academic sham. Passing 12 credit hours of Intro to Breathing, not declaring a major and not entering into an advanced curriculum before leaving school is a clear refutation of the academic mission.

Problem there is, that's a quandary the NCAA is stuck with – it's the NBA's minimum age rule. College basketball simply has to deal with the giant academic loophole it presents. Closing that loophole is the only way in which Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany's retrograde, "year of readiness" trial balloon seems like a decent idea, but the backlash to dialing back freshman eligibility 40-plus years would be immense.

Another front-end trend that bears scrutiny: the "reclassification" trend that has seen a number of high school basketball players suddenly leap frog a year forward to go to college earlier. national basketball recruiting analyst Eric Bossi says reclassifying is not a completely accurate term; that most often it's a case of actually catching up with said player's intended graduating class – players ticketed for an additional year of seasoning in prep schools are simply bypassing that step. That was the case with Nerlens Noel, Andre Drummond and others. Canadians like Andrew Wiggins, who attend one more year of high school than Americans, also have reclassified.

But then there is the case of Derryck Thornton, the junior who entered high school with the class of 2016 but will leave it with the class of 2015. He will also leave it as the likely starting point guard for Duke next fall.

While that's an enticing opportunity, he's giving up a lot in order to fill Mike Krzyzewski's glaring need after the loss of freshman Tyus Jones (one of three one-and-done players on Duke's championship team) to the NBA.

Thornton originally joined youth basketball's ever-growing vagabond circuit in 2013, when he transferred from Sierra Canyon High School in Southern California to the five-star assembly line at Findlay Prep in suburban Las Vegas. But instead of spending three seasons at Findlay, Thornton spent two.

Media reports in February floated the idea that he might accelerate his graduation date by a year, but at the time Thornton said he was "70 percent" sure he would stay in the Class of 2016. Then Jones went pro and Krzyzewski needed a starter at point. On April 21, Thornton committed to Duke and said he would graduate this year.

A senior year of high school is among the priceless commodities in life. I hope giving that away in part because some coach needs you now is a good decision for Thornton. It certainly seems to be one more example of the coach controlling the athlete more than vice versa.

Then there are the academic questions. By all accounts, Thornton is a bright young man and he may have been planning his class load with this accelerated graduation in mind. But will he be ready – early – for the classroom challenge at Duke? It's not exactly like going to UNLV.

As issues like reclassifying percolate without seeming to draw much attention, the powers-that-be in College Sports Inc. are wringing their hands over graduate transfers. They're focused on the wrong end of the academic experience, and addressing the wrong issue.