Here’s How the NCAA Transfer Portal Changed College Athletics in 2021

The NCAA's one-time transfer rule created free agency in college athletics. Now players can more easily change schools and maybe strike it rich in the process.

December 22, 2021 · Updated on February 8, 2022

Here’s How the NCAA Transfer Portal Changed College Athletics in 2021
College Sports
Photo by Icon Sportswire / Contributor / Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

  • The NCAA's "one-time transfer rule" took effect in April 2021.
  • It allows athletes to transfer to a different school one time and play immediately.
  • The rule has effectively created free agency for college athletes.

When the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) College Football Playoff semifinals kick off on New Year's Eve, a new form of free agency in college athletics will be front and center.

On the No. 1 University of Alabama Crimson Tide, linebacker Henry To'oTo'o has been an impact player all season after transferring from the University of Tennessee. The No. 3 University of Georgia Bulldogs, meanwhile, shored up a lauded defensive secondary when cornerback Derion Kendrick (pictured above) transferred from Clemson University.

Georgia and Alabama are clear winners in the NCAA's new transfer portal era, but some coaches and administrators are less than thrilled about the policy, while athletes continue to take advantage of new rules affording them more power over their college careers.

"It's crazy. It's really sad, to be honest with you," Clemson University head football coach Dabo Swinney said, according to The Clemson Insider.

“It's total chaos right now”
Dabo Swinney, Clemson University Head Football Coach

"It's total chaos right now," he added. "There's so much tampering going on and so many adults manipulating young people, and it's sad."

"I don't think people really say it this way, but let's not make a mistake: We have free agency in college football," agreed University of Mississippi head football coach Lane Kiffin, reported in the Clarion Ledger.

While college football players are making the headlines now as they switch teams, they are far from being the most active. Men's and women's basketball players transfer at an even higher rate.

According to VerbalCommits.com, more than 1,700 Division I men's college basketball players entered the NCAA's transfer portal in 2021, and 23 players have already said they are transferring in 2022. Ten years ago, only 577 Division I basketball players transferred.

The door to collegiate transfers cracked open in October 2018 when the NCAA decided to update its rules by creating the transfer portal. The transfer portal is where athletes from all three NCAA divisions post notices of their intent to transfer and where coaches can search for players to recruit.

More than 15,000 athletes from all sports entered their names in the transfer portal in the first year it was created.

More than 15,000 athletes from all sports entered their names in the transfer portal in the first year it was created.

But it wasn't until 2021 that the door to free agency was blown off its hinges. First, the NCAA's "one-time transfer rule" took effect on April 28, 2021. Then on July 1, 2021, the NCAA made it possible for athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness. Now, just like coaches, players can easily change schools and, perhaps, strike it rich in the process.

The one-time transfer rule allows athletes to transfer to a different school one time during their career and play immediately without getting permission from their coach or school. Previously, athletes had to get permission from their current school and then sit out a year as a penalty for transferring. If denied a transfer by a coach, a long process could ensue.

Under the name, image, and likeness (NIL) rules, schools are allowed to educate players about opportunities to profit off their names. But schools can't facilitate deals for their athletes. The money has to come from a third party. Players must inform their school of their NIL contracts, but aren't required to get permission to sign them, cutting coaches out of the process.

College athletes may seek transfers because of issues such as playing time, coaching conflicts, or the hope of playing professionally. But transferring is risky.

“We have to support an environment that ... permits legitimate transfer while holding to account those who tamper”
Greg Sankey, Southeastern Conference Commissioner

Some athletes get snapped up quickly by coaches. But for others the future is uncertain. Many lose their scholarships, says Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, who noted in July 2021 that roughly 13,000 Division I student-athletes had entered the portal and that 11,000 remained without a new team.

"We have to support an environment that provides more flexibility, permits legitimate transfer while holding to account those who tamper and want to turn college rosters into their personal recruiting grounds," Stankey said.

Another downside to the transfer portal is that while some schools benefit, others can be devastated by the loss of key players.

"There's been Division II's that have gotten absolutely killed with eight, nine, 10 guys in the portal," said Oklahoma Baptist coach Jason Eaker in The Oklahoman.

The NCAA has studied the issue of student-athlete transfers. A 2020 poll conducted by Gallup for the NCAA found that "a smaller proportion of NCAA student-athletes (22%) than non-athletes (38%) transferred to the institution from which they graduated."

There are, however, exceptions — such as men's basketball, where transfer rates "may exceed" those for nonathletes, the NCAA says.

Ohio State head football coach Ryan Day, whose team has benefited from transfers, is another coach who is not pleased with the new rules.

"I think it's dangerous to live in the portal world," he said in The Columbus Dispatch. "I don't think it's sustainable for the chemistry and culture of your team to be doing that. So if we do bring in somebody, it has to be deliberate. We have to think it all the way through, and it has to be the right fit at the right time."

Despite complaints from coaches and administrators, it appears that the new rules, particularly NIL rules, will remain unchanged. A draft of the new NCAA constitution calls for name, image and likeness rules to stay the same. NCAA members will have the final say when they vote on a new constitution in January 2022.