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Liberating student athletes; first-hand thoughts about NCAA transfer rules

From Rowdy Gaines to Marcus Dupree, David M. Wheeler shares his tales of athletes he witnessed be spit out by the NCAA machine.

Indiana v Ohio State
Jameson Williams in the open field.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

What have we done? Are we surprised that Jameson Williams jumped ship and was pulled in by Bama, after only a few days in the portal? Not at all. And there will be plenty more to come — this season and hereafter. The net is filled with folks asking, “Who’s next?”

Now that the NCAA has permitted one transfer with immediate playing eligibility for this next season only, transferring is easy. But, how long will it be before the one-time transfer rule becomes standard for all transfers in all seasons?

Make no mistake, this new transfer rule is closely related to college players’ being compensated for use of their names, images, and likenesses. And another step towards their being compensated for playing. Big changes are on the way as the NCAA’s stranglehold on college athletes is loosened — either voluntarily or by the courts. I, for one, feel that those changes are long overdue.

Athletes have always been exploited by those making money from their sport, but I think that collegiate athletes have the least autonomy of all. As a university professor with a long career behind me, I’ve taught and advised, and talked informally with lots of scholarship athletes in nearly all sports.

So, maybe my perspective on the relationship between athletes and the bodies that govern their sports (and their careers) is different from that of the average fan. And it’s certainly different from those of coaches, athletic directors, university presidents, and the bureaucrats who work for the NCAA. Let me give you a couple of examples.

Rowdy Gaines

Perhaps the best-known athlete with whom I was associated was swimming champion Rowdy Gaines. I taught Rowdy at Auburn in 1980 or 1981, when Gaines was at the height of his achievement. A world record-holder, he was the fastest sprinter in the world and the favorite in multiple events for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. As far as I know, Rowdy Gaines didn’t want to leave Auburn, but he was a victim, not of the NCAA, but of international politics, as the US boycotted the games.

Swimming - Los Angeles Olympic Games 1984 - Men’s 4x100 Medley Relay - Final
Swimmer Rowdy Gaines wins gold for US in 1984 Olympics 4X100 relay.
Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

He worried about the effort, the sacrifice that it would take to keep his world-class form for four years and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. In fact, when they finally rolled around, Rowdy wasn’t as good. While he took home three golds (two in relays), you could tell, in watching them before a race, that opposing swimmers didn’t fear him, didn’t hold him in awe, as they did in the late 70s and early 80s.

Marcus Dupree

You may remember (or have heard about) Marcus Dupree. Southern writer Willie Morris (yep, the “My Dog Skip” guy) wrote a prize-winning book called “The Courting of Marcus Dupree,” published in 1983. Just as the original “Friday Night Lights” was a socioeconomic study of football and oil in Odessa, Texas, Morris’s book examined not only Dupree and football recruiting, but also race and poverty in Philadelphia, Miss.

In 1981, Dupree was the top recruit in the country; it was before ratings, and stars, and press conferences for high school kids, but Dupree was the best. At 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, he reportedly ran a 4.4 40-yard dash, and was as close as one could get to a sure thing. Dupree had scholarship offers from everybody, but he ended the courting by accepting Barry Switzer’s offer and headed off to play for Oklahoma in the 1982-83 season.

Oklahoma v Stanford
Marcus Dupree in one of his last games for the Sooners, September 1983.
Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

Later, Marcus told me that he was lonely in Norman, that he hated sitting on the bench. Eventually, though, he got his chances, starting seven games for the Sooners and gaining over 1,100 yards as a true freshman. Folks in Oklahoma — and elsewhere — still talk about the 1983 Fiesta Bowl; Dupree racked up 239 on only 17 carries, all in the first half as he left the game with an injury in the second quarter, and Oklahoma lost to Arizona State.

Dupree, however, didn’t like it at Oklahoma, and he didn’t like playing for Barry Switzer, who, he claimed, took the fun out of the game. Dupree played a few games in 1983 and left town.

He enrolled at Southern Miss, where I was (very briefly) his academic advisor. He told me of his homesickness, his troubles with Switzer, his frustration about having to sit out the 1984 season because of the transfer rule and not being able to play in the NFL because he was only two years out of high school. Marcus’s options were limited; he felt trapped.

Breaking our hearts, he never played for the Golden Eagles (even if he had, he would have missed having Brett Favre as his quarterback by a couple of years). Instead, he chose to leave college and play for Portland in the upstart USFL, where he was injury-prone. Marcus finally made it to the NFL in 1990, gaining 251 yards and scoring one touchdown in 15 games for the Rams.

How would things have turned out for Dupree today? He could have left Oklahoma, like Trey Sermon, and starred elsewhere. But he was the property of the NCAA, and his football career was halted.

Ohio State, Alabama, and Oklahoma have all had the luxury of stockpiling a roster full of 4 and 5-star recruits to step up when there’s an injury or an early entry to the NFL draft. With regulations relaxing, those guys aren’t going to wait around for their turn any longer. They want playing time; they want the stats that will get them into the pros.

And, since they were fifteen, we’ve told them how great they are, cheering them on as they choose their top 10, then their top 5, following them on Twitter. They’re stars before they play a game, and “patience” is an unknown virtue.

The biggest crowd of these stars for the Buckeyes currently is in the wide receiver room, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was another transfer from this group before the summer, or especially after the season.

Then, we’ll see what happens with the quarterbacks. Justin Fields, Jalen Hurts, and Joe Burrow all transferred and prospered. They loom as models for those thinking about leaving. Williams might too, now that he seems to be a presumptive starter for the Tide.

Maybe these changes will spread out the talent. We’ll see... and I think that we’ll see very shortly. Although worrisome for the fans of elite teams, these changes no doubt allow for more freedom and more control of their own fates for collegiate athletes. But we have to ask, “Who’s next?”