Stephen Tsai: Playing field finally being leveled for college athletes

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This is the deal of the art:

In a back-in-the-day scenario, you were recruited to work at a comic-book company. You received free lodging, three meals a day, and art supplies. But you were on your own dime to buy toothpaste, toilet paper, and pizza.

Your editor — the groveling guy who came into your living room promising to make you the next Stan Lee — could leave and work immediately for another company. But if you went elsewhere, you would have to wait a year before your artwork could be published. Not only did the company own your work, they could sell it without sharing the profits.

And for decades, that was the scholarship arrangement for an NCAA Division I student-athlete. The player was limited to receiving tuition, room and board, and some school expenses. The player could pay for a Zip-Pac but not identify Zippy's in interviews. The player did not receive a cut of the replica jersey with his number. While coaches received courtesy cars, players could not ride in them. Caught in a rainstorm? "Sorry, buddy, I'll see you at practice."

But after protests and lawsuits, common sense eventually was accepted as currency. At first, players who earned a degree could transfer without sitting out a year. The complication was the graduate transfer had to find a field not available at the original school. Gerontology, anyone?

Then players received cost-of-attendance stipends, which provided money for living expenses not covered by a scholarship.

Successful legal challenges then led to college players being allowed to profit from use of their name, image and likeness. The caveat was the schools could not be involved in paying for the NIL deals.

In 2021, NCAA athletes were allowed a one-time exemption to transfer and not have to sit out a season at their new school.

And last week — at last — the NCAA ruled athletes in good academic standing will be immediately eligible to play no matter how many times they transfer.

It is a fair and just ruling for NCAA athletes, who now, just like most employees, have the freedom of opportunity. If a coach can profit from a sport and be allowed to change jobs without sitting out a year, why not the same for players? If 21 is the legal drinking age, did it make sense to tie players into college choices they made at 17, 18, 20?

And while it widens the way for a mid-major school, such as the University of Hawaii, to lose players, the transfer portal works both ways. UH teams have filled out their rosters with transfers. Of the UH men's basketball team's six seniors this past season, five of them began their careers at other colleges. There were football games when the Warriors had all transfers in the secondary. The baseball 'Bows' starting lineup on Sunday included five transfers.

But unlimited free agency comes with caution. According to an NCAA study of the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years, "41% did not find a new school, were still looking, transferred to a non-NCAA school, or left their sport completely." (The data was compiled during the pandemic years.)

And because NIL deals are arranged outside of school, athletes and their families have to be mindful of the advice they receive. Agents representing NFL players are screened, certified and earn a suggested 3% commission. But there are few restrictions on advisers to college athletes.

But those are star problems. For NCAA athletes overall, what matters is the proverbial field is being leveled.