The transfer culture in high school sports continues to grow – exponentially in some cases – and shows no signs of slowing down. A student-athlete may transfer schools for a variety of reasons. A family move, a school closure, additional academic support programs or a desire to participate in amenities not offered at the sending school are all perfectly acceptable motivations.
More concerning, however, is the increasing number of transfers made exclusively for athletic reasons, whether that be for personal exposure, the hunt for a state championship or the desire to play with friends or a specific coach. Student-athletes transferring for the wrong reasons is by no means a new problem for athletic directors and state associations, but many believe this notable uptick to be a trickle-down effect of the increased media coverage afforded to free agency in professional sports, which was then introduced to the college level through the institution of the NCAA Transfer Portal. It seemed to be a matter of time before the idea trickled down to the high school level, and it appears that time has come. So, with the number of departures and arrivals propelled by questionable motives climbing steadily, what can high school athletic directors do to give themselves an advantage?
The first step for any athletic administrator handling transfer issues is to gain a thorough understanding of the rules set forth by the respective state high school association and the various routes a prospective transfer can take to become eligible immediately. This may seem like common sense, but in a typical jam-packed schedule, squeezing in time to study rules can be difficult.
“As an athletic director, you are so caught up in all the work that’s going on at that moment that you sometimes don’t really understand the bigger rules because they don’t come into your life a lot,” said Greg Simon, associate executive director of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) and former athletic director at Newtown (Connecticut) High School. “As a public school AD in the largest classification in Connecticut, the transfer rules didn’t affect my life a whole lot because the kids pretty much came here from middle school and went through four years of high school and graduated.”
In many states, subtle, oft-overlooked nuances have been added to these rules to benefit student-athletes who experience unforeseen circumstances. Being familiar with these caveats, which are utilized by all transfer students regardless of their true motivation, is crucial.
As an example, the CIAC mandates that transfer students sit out a full calendar year if they wish to participate in an “affected” sport, which is defined as any sport played at a previous institution beyond ninth grade. However, the ineligibility period can be reduced to a half-season of that sport if representatives from both the sending and receiving schools sign a waiver declaring the transfer motive non-athletic.
Simon also explained the “multiple levels of due-process” within the association’s transfer structure, which are characterized by a three-fold appeal process. Procedures begin with a letter and supporting documentation from the receiving-school principal – typically citing one of the CIAC’s 17 transfer exceptions – that are evaluated by a committee of fellow principals. If that appeal is denied, the student-athlete, his or her family and school officials may then travel to the CIAC office to present their case to an eligibility review board comprised almost entirely of individuals unfamiliar with the situation.
“More appeals are granted in person because the eligibility review board members can ask questions regarding things that couldn’t be understood in the written documents,” Simon said.
In the event both attempts fail, the Board of Control – the supreme governing entity within the Connecticut association – may consent to hear the argument, especially if the case featured a tight voting margin.
Brushing up on transfer rules is a prudent move for athletic directors in Indiana as well. Once known for some of the strictest policies across the country, the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) has made a concerted effort to loosen its constraints.
“Our transfer rule has been amended quite a few times over the last several years,” said Bobby Cox, IHSAA executive director. “I would agree with the ascertainment that the IHSAA’s transfer rule was pretty strict. It’s kind of in a continuum and I think we’re probably in the middle somewhere, now.”
The IHSAA employs a multi-tier appeal process like that of the CIAC and has instituted a host of exceptions for “limited eligibility,” where a transfer occurs without a move by a parent or guardian. Among the recent additions are allowances for hardships (house fires, natural disasters, etc.), students in families with divorced and separated parents, students who return to Indiana from out-of-state boarding schools and students with parents who change education jobs in the same district.
“You still need to have a transfer rule and have the philosophy that participation in athletics is a privilege – and a protected privilege – but we’ve worked pretty hard at trying to liberalize our rules and bring them into the 21st century,” said Cox. “We’re trying to find ways to make kids eligible, not ineligible.”
After gaining an in-depth knowledge of their state’s transfer rules, athletic administrators should relay that information to students and parents, particularly as it relates to transfers who do not qualify for exceptions.
“Parents need to understand that transfers for athletic purposes are going to be questioned, and there’s going to be a penalty that goes with it,” said NFHS Executive Director Karissa Niehoff. “You’re going to be sitting on the bench for a while, and in most states that’s 365 days.”
Anger, frustration and resentment are some of the adverse emotions that can undermine the decision-making process in a potential transfer situation and, many times, can lead to a failure to account for the consequences of an unfavorable ruling. Thus, educating parents on the inner workings of transfer rules and how they will impact their children upon arriving at their new school is vital.
Mike McGurk, activities director at Lee’s Summit (Missouri) North High School, has had several of these conversations.
“We’ll sit down, and I’ll say something like, ‘okay, here’s what’s going to happen,’” McGurk said. “‘Because your family isn’t moving and you’re just changing schools, you’re going to have to show why you HAD to change schools. And if the state association doesn’t feel like there was something that forced you to change schools, they’re going to rule you ineligible.”
While affirming McGurk’s sentiment, Simon said he also sees value in including guidance counselors as parent liaisons.
“The better athletic directors can interpret and be able to explain our rules to parents, the easier it’s going to be for them,” he said. “And try to do it on both ends (with guidance counselors). One of the first things I did when I got (to the CIAC) was make up a couple of posters to be hung in guidance counselor’s offices that reinforced what could happen when a kid chooses to transfer.”
Taking the time to personally investigate the facts in a transfer situation is another worthwhile time investment for athletic directors.
Sadly, the importance placed on winning or improving a situation for personal gain can lead to embellishment – and even flat-out dishonesty – for the sake of immediate eligibility. Phony addresses, student-athletes moving in with pseudo-parents and even falsified financial statements have been used to try and skirt the rules.
“There’s always more to the story,” said Greg Grantham, coordinator of athletics for the Onslow County School District in Jacksonville, North Carolina. “It was always sketchy when you called and found out the family was living in a five-bedroom, two-story house, and now suddenly they’re living in an apartment or mobile home in your district. That doesn’t compute. Somebody’s trying to play the system here.”
McGurk has seen warning signs with the way transfer paperwork has been submitted and has begun keeping track of patterns that seem to separate the innocent from the questionable.
“The kids that are doing it for the right reasons typically have no problem coming and saying ‘hey, our family’s moving, my dad got a new job, we’re headed to this place,’” he said. “It’s the kids that all of a sudden just disappear, and then the paperwork comes in electronically that he or she is at another school that gets you curious. If you’re moving, why would you not tell the school first?”
Once the research has been gathered on these “curious” cases, it is time to perform perhaps the most important role of an athletic director in a transfer situation – sharing that knowledge with the administrator on the other end.
“Communication between athletic administrators needs to be there,” McGurk said. “If I get a kid coming into my building and his paperwork says he’s playing football or whatever, I’ll call the (sending) school and say ‘hey, I just got this transfer into my school, can you give me any background information on him?’” And I think when you have those open lines of communication, it certainly helps in the process.”
And, as Grantham points out, if the transfer is being made with the proper motives, there is no reason not to correspond.
“If an administrator is convinced that everything is on the up-and-up, there should be no problem calling to find out about a particular situation,” he said. “It’s only when that administrator is convinced something shady is going on and doesn’t want to know about it that he or she doesn’t pick up the phone and make that call.”
Transfers will forever be a part of sports at the high school level and beyond; there is no way to curtail them completely, but with proper education, communication and investigation, great strides can be made to limit issues across the country.
“The NFHS’ position is that we need to support state associations to protect the legitimate transfer and educate those parents, student-athletes, coaches and ADs about what the state association bylaws are,” Niehoff said. “And they might be a little different stateto- state, but we’ve got to make sure the people involved in the process – all the stakeholders – have an understanding of what is legitimate and what is not.”