When Kansas State fired long-time women’s basketball coach Deb Patterson in March, the Wildcats’ star guard decided she wanted to transfer. Leticia Romero, who led Kansas State in scoring with 14.2 points per game as a freshman, felt her style of play didn’t mesh with the Wildcats’ incoming coach. She’d have to sit out a year, but considering she’d come all the way from Spain specifically to play for Patterson and assistant coach Shalee Lehning, who won’t be a part of the new coaching staff, it was worth it to find a place where she was comfortable.
But when she applied for a release to transfer, Kansas State denied her request. Then, after a hearing in front of the school’s athletic committee last week, Kansas State ruled against her again.
Romero can still leave Kansas State for another school. But instead of simply sitting out for a single year, she’ll now have sit out a year and pay her own way. NCAA rules stipulate that athletes cannot receive scholarship aid from a new school unless their previous school grants a one-time transfer exception request. So if Romero leaves the Wildcats, she’ll have to do without a scholarship for a year — and the Spain native told the Topeka Capital-Journal last week that her family couldn’t afford to do that:
The consequences of that decision, Romero said, would be extremely trying for her family.
“I will have to sit for a year anyways, but I will have to pay for my scholarship,” Romero said, “and that’s something I can’t do. My parents … the situation in Spain is really bad right now. They could lose their jobs (at any time).”
Kansas State’s decision to block Romero’s transfer drew national attention last week, especially after ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas — a noted critic of the NCAA — tweeted about her story.
— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) April 16, 2014
Kansas State did not comment on Romero’s request, citing student privacy laws. But the school’s athlete handbook, according to the Capital-Journal, says that it “is the policy of the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics not to grant a release for purposes of a transfer or provide the one-time transfer exception,” except in incidences “which place an undue burden on the student-athlete.”
Kansas State has previously blocked other athletes from transferring in line with that policy, and other schools have invoked similar policies when blocking players from transferring to other schools. NCAA rules expressly put transfers in the hands of schools if athletes want to maintain eligibility and financial aid. At times, the rules can be even more restrictive. Conferences have their own transfer rules that can limit athletes from transferring to schools within the same conference; PAC-12 rules, for instance, say that any athlete who transfers within the conference sit out a season, lose that year of eligibility, and go without financial aid during that school year.
Kansas State wants to keep Romero in the program because she is a good player who can help the Wildcats, who finished 11-19 last year, turn their program around. Letting Romero leave a place where she is uncomfortable and unhappy won’t hurt her academically or athletically. But it will hurt Kansas State’s women’s basketball program, and that’s what matters to Kansas State. It’s the same logic that leads other schools to block transfers. They want to keep players, keep their players from helping other programs, or keep their players from sharing playbooks or strategies. The NCAA and its member schools say its about academics, but in reality it’s all about sports, and schools and the NCAA get ultimate control over the athletes — right down to whether they can maintain financial aid if they switch schools (and the policies are hardly hard-and-fast: just last year, Kansas State allowed three players to transfer out of its men’s basketball program).
Romero isn’t sure what she plans to do next. Kansas State could and should help her (and its own image) by reversing its previous decision so Romero can leave and accept financial aid at another school. But the control schools get over their athletes is a larger problem that won’t go away even if Romero’s case is fixed, not unless the NCAA totally revamps its transfer rules. The larger problem is the amount of control schools get over their athletes. It’s control they don’t have over other students, who transfer at higher rates and can immediately seek financial aid from other universities without the blessing of the school they are leaving.
Romero’s case, however, is indicative of how this level of control is becoming a problem for the NCAA, as situations like this are only bolstering many of the challenges to the organization’s current model. In a ruling that found that college athletes at Northwestern University function as employees who could form a union, the level of control schools exert over their athletes, from practice schedules to financial aid to whether they can switch schools, was one of the reasons the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board reached the decision he did. The NCAA may oppose efforts to organize college athletes, but its actions and those of its members in cases like Romero’s serve only to prove the point those athletes are trying to make.