Joel Klatt: Coaches in full panic over spring transfer portal. How do we fix it?

The spring transfer portal opens on Tuesday and coaches around college football are in full panic over it. 

Just like the transfer portal period at the end of the regular season, players can enter it whenever they desire as it’s open for two weeks. There are also very few, if any, parameters around the spring transfer portal period, just like it is for the winter transfer portal window.

I’ve already spoken with numerous coaches this offseason as I was on the sideline for FOX’s broadcast of Ohio State‘s spring game on Saturday, and at no point over the last couple of years have I sensed the level of panic from coaches about this particular portal period.

Those coaches’ concerns are indicative of where we’re at with the portal. The NCAA has given notice to the schools and to the programs that they aren’t going to enforce rules that are currently on the books. We saw what happened with the Tennessee and Virginia case in February, where a judge prevented the NCAA from enforcing its name, image and likeness (NIL) rules through an injunction. The NCAA didn’t want to deal with any more litigation and threw its hands up, essentially saying “have at it.”

So, this spring transfer window is set to be a free-for-all. In last year’s spring transfer window, most players entering the portal were ones who lost position battles during spring ball and were looking at possible places where they could play. At this time last year, coaches weren’t that excited about the spring transfer window because they didn’t feel there were going to be many great players available, at least not enough to shake up the roster. 

Now that everyone can essentially transfer an unlimited number of times, any transfer window becomes a leverage point for players. It’s free agency for every single player in every window. As the coaches are in panic, they feel that trying to retain their roster becomes like another bout of free agency. Even players who are getting healthy NIL deals can and will approach their coaches in the next week and say, “I want more money,” or “I’m going to transfer because I know that school is offering me more money.”

The maddening part about that is that it’s illegal. You can’t have an inducement. You can’t tamper, but it’s running rampant right now, which is why every player is a free agent now. 

We might end up seeing some transformative players wind up changing schools in the coming weeks because of that, which could change the balance of power within conferences and the sport. I don’t blame the players for using this leverage point. It’s a tool in their toolbox and I won’t disparage someone who’s looking to earn more money for their services. 

Looking at all of this from a broader view, where does it leave us in the world of college football? It’s hypocritical that there’s a transfer window period opening up on April 16. The industry, as a whole, talks about December being some sort of holy month due to academics, so they can’t move the College Football Playoff closer to the end of the regular season, even though all the other sports are able to keep going during that same time. Yet, we have a transfer window that opens weeks before the end of the spring semester at most schools. Academics have always played second fiddle, and this lays it bare for everyone to see.

Not only that, but spring football is still ongoing across the country when the transfer portal opens on Tuesday. What’s going on here? It shouldn’t open until everyone’s spring football concludes. Sure, some schools can be blamed for holding later spring football periods than others, but why not get everyone on the same page? Some pretty notable programs will have yet to have had their spring games (Michigan, USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Notre Dame) when the portal opens, while other programs have had theirs, which could cause panic among players who don’t know their fate yet in position battles.

Joel Klatt’s takeaways from the Ohio State spring game

Somebody needs to be smarter than what’s going on to fix this. This isn’t good for the players. This isn’t good for the coaches. It’s unsustainable. 

With the complaining out of the way, let’s lay out a plan to fix all of this. First, we should prevent transfer windows from opening during times when teams are still playing, whether it’s in the spring or fall. This should be an easy fix. Just in the structure of how we do things, this will make life so much easier for players and coaches.

The second thing is that we need to create a collective bargaining agreement. 

We can’t have free agency twice a year with every single player. For years, players were absolutely taken advantage of and the pendulum was on one side. Suddenly, the pendulum slammed past the middle and to the other side.

It’s time to be adults and bring it back to the middle. There needs to be some pain and gain on both sides, which is why we need to quickly create a collective bargaining agreement. I settled on a collective bargaining agreement instead of employment because each state has different employment rules and regulations. 

I want the players to essentially become independent contractors and enter into a contract, which would be governed by a collective bargaining agreement. The players need their own association and should unionize. Some people might hate that word, but it would allow for a collective bargaining agreement to happen.

There are three issues that I believe can be collectively bargained to improve the lives of the players and schools. Let’s break them down.

1. Establish a revenue-sharing agreement between players and schools

Jim Harbaugh was a big proponent of this before heading back to the NFL. Now, other coaches are starting to catch on. I believe it’s the right move as well. 

The television revenue that is being distributed to these schools should be shared with the players. I’m not sure how much of a cut they should get, which is why you negotiate it. But it’s needed because it’ll help bring competitive balance, players would get a new budget that’s publicly known, and the schools would get a sustainable output of distribution. 

Joel Klatt breaks down the spring transfer portal window & how to fix it

Right now, the money from boosters is going to NIL collectives instead of improving the athletic facilities. You don’t feel the need to raise an unspecified amount of money every single year. You would have clarity. 

2. Limit transfers

You can also negotiate with the players and limit their mobility through a collective bargaining agreement. I’d allow one undergraduate transfer and one graduate transfer without penalty for all players. 

On the surface level, you might wonder why the players would do it, but I think it would help them, too. Most players only need 3.5 years to graduate, so one free transfer during that time is plenty. You get to hold up your end of the bargain as a player through the end of earning your first degree before possibly looking elsewhere, sort of like what Joe Burrow did when he lost out on the Ohio State quarterback job. 

Even with two transfers, it would encourage players to mature because they would have to be committed to their programs. Nick Saban told me that he feared that with kids halfway committed, they wouldn’t reach their full potential. If we allow players to take their ball and go home, that isn’t allowing them to be their best. 

For the coaches and programs, not every player would become eligible to transfer whenever a window opens. So, you won’t have to worry about recruiting your whole roster twice a year. 

3. Third-party representation would be forced to register with the association

Just like with professional leagues, if an agent wants to represent a player, they have to register with the respective players’ association. They have to take a test and know who that person is, removing them from the shadows. 

We desperately need that in college football because we have far too many young men and families who are being taken advantage of by third-party representation, or they’re taking advantage of them by working in pay structures of perpetuity. 

If we have a collective bargaining agreement, the players would be protected. It would also limit tampering because we know who the agents are. We can enforce tampering in professional leagues because we know who the parties are. What’s happening now is that agents are shopping players around the country while those players are currently on a roster at another school. 

We’re right at the tip of the spear of this era that will catapult college football into the stratosphere, but we have to fix the structure. We have tools to fix this, so why not fix it?

Joel Klatt is FOX Sports’ lead college football game analyst and the host of the podcast “The Joel Klatt Show.” Follow him on X/Twitter at @joelklatt and subscribe to the “Joel Klatt Show” on YouTube.

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