Michigan basketball coach Jim Beilein's refusal to let graduate transfer Spike Albrecht play for a Big Ten school illustrates the hypocrisy of big-time NCAA sports.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
This feature is part of VICE Sports' March Madness coverage.
Just a few months ago, Michigan guard Spike Albrecht didn't think he would ever play basketball again. But now, after having missed most of his season with a chronic hip injury, Albrecht has healed enough to make one last go of it.
The Wolverines don't have a spot for him on next year's team and never planned on having him back, but in theory, that shouldn't be a problem: the NCAA has a graduate transfer policy that allows players who already have earned their undergraduate degrees, like Albrecht, to be immediately eligible to play at another school.
If only things were that simple.
Before the 2015-16 season, Michigan saw graduate transfer Max Bielfeldt enroll at Big Ten rival Indiana, where he became the league's Sixth Man of the Year for the conference champion Hoosiers. That didn't sit well with Wolverines coach John Beilein, who is currently preventing Albrecht—an Indiana native who nearly enrolled at Indiana before accepting a scholarship at Michigan—from transferring to any Big Ten school.
After losing Bielfeldt, Beilein seems to have seller's remorse, and Albrecht is the one that's suffering for it.
"I don't think people should be able to transfer within their league at any time, but he's there and that's all there is to it," Beilein said.
Let's take a step back and consider the absurdity of all of this:
● The NCAA and member institutions, such as Michigan, purport to value academics over everything. Albrecht has already graduated, therefore fulfilling his academic obligations. No other graduate student is restricted in any way from choosing another college. But the NCAA allows coaches to restrict athlete movement, simply because their teams might have to compete against said athletes.
● Albrecht wants to come back to Michigan, but the Wolverines won't allow that. Essentially, Beilein's position is that if we can't have him, nobody can.
● While the NCAA and its member schools swear up and down—both in public and in federal antitrust court—that athletes aren't employees, Beilein's Big Ten transfer block basically subjects Albrecht to a corporate non-compete clause, which is the sort of thing employers in the non-magical world of amateurism get to negotiate, along with salaries.
● There is no discernible difference between Albrecht's and Bielfeldt's situations, yet in seemingly arbitrary fashion, Beilein is restricting the former and didn't restrict the latter.
Albrecht's situation perfectly reflects the NCAA's hypocrisy. Big-time college sports are all about academics, until academics get in the way of a coach's basketball wishes. Coaches claim to care about players' welfare, but they discard them when they're not useful, and limit their transfer options, to boot.
The biggest issue, though, is the totality of control the association allows coaches and schools to wield over athletes. In a fair system, like any professional sports league, athletes would be able to challenge arbitrary decisions and punishments, mostly likely through a union. For instance, the NFL Players' Union has pushed back pretty successfully against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's back-of-a-napkin brand of justice, including getting the league's Tom Brady Deflategate suspension overturned.
While the Big Ten has a blanket ban on in-conference transfers—again, a hypocritical rule for players who have already graduated—players can at least appeal, as Bielfeldt did successfully. However, a coach's veto overrides the appeal, which calls into question the entire system.
Michigan has admitted that it more or less functions like Goodell, making stuff up as it goes along. Let one player off with no restrictions, and they end up playing well for one of your rivals? Ruh-roh! Better restrict the next one:
According to a U-M spokesman, no athletic department-wide policy exists for student-athletes transferring out of the university. Those stipulations are instead determined by "individual programs" and can be "situation-specific."
In order for rules to be anything close to fair, they cannot be "situation-specific," especially when one person—the coach—has all the power. That wouldn't stand in any other industry. It's specifically why antitrust laws and unions were created—to fight against arbitrary oppression and exploitation by the powerful.
Why should a basketball coach have any say over where a credentialed student gets to attend graduate school? Why should a purported amateur sports organization that doesn't have athlete-employees get to enforce the sort of non-compete rules typically found in labor contracts? Why should a program that doesn't even want a player be allowed to refuse to release that same player unconditionally?
Michigan's restriction of Albrecht's transfer is hypocritical, exploitative, and bullying, but most of all, it's a window into how big-time college sports really work. The NCAA and its member institutions spend a lot of time talking about values like education and opportunity, but in the end, those take a back seat to what coaches and schools truly value: absolute control over athletes. In a just system, the above questions wouldn't have to be asked in the first place; in the college sports world we inhabit, they have no good answers.