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Imagine it's December 2019.

A wide receiver just caught a 40-yard pass on the first drive of the season finale, straddling the sideline and setting up first and goal for Arkansas State University.

Now imagine coaching staffs assembled across the country -- in Ann Arbor, in Tuscaloosa, in Fayetteville -- watching the game around conference tables, taking notes: Good size, great hands/balance, UNDERCLASSMAN.

The Red Wolves receiver is named the bowl game's MVP. The coaching staffs click their TVs off and scroll through their cellphone contact lists for the receiver's high school coach or mentor. By the time the team bus returns to Jonesboro, the receiver has made up his mind.

He walks into the coaches office and declares his intention to transfer. Within days, the news breaks on social media, and by the time the 2020 season kicks off, the receiver is catching passes in a Power 5 team's uniform.

No sitting out a year. No restrictions.

This hypothetical isn't possible today, but the NCAA took a step in that direction when its Division I Council on Wednesday eliminated the requirement that athletes have to receive permission from their athletic departments to transfer and receive financial aid from another school.

The change was in the works for a while, sparked by examples such as Kansas State Coach Bill Snyder blocking receiver Corey Sutton last year from transferring to as many as 35 schools. Snyder received widespread blow back before he finally allowed Sutton to transfer to Appalachian State.

Wednesday's rule was proposed by an NCAA committee called the Transfer Working Group. But back in April, the Division I Committee on Academics -- yeah, a lot of committees -- asked the Transfer Working Group to draw up another rule that would allow players to transfer to other institutions and play immediately if they have a GPA between 3.0 and 3.3.

Not just in football. Basketball. Baseball. Bowling.

Thus would begin the age of collegiate free agency.

Major universities could create NBA-like super teams, and the mid-majors could become farm systems.

A shooting guard could lead the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in scoring then get scooped up by Memphis.

A first baseman at the University of Central Arkansas can swat the most home runs in the conference, then go play at Texas Tech.

Heck, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock football program might show up just in time to have its quarterback snatched up by the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

"If all rules were off and all restrictions were off, it's the wild, wild west," Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Karl Benson said.

And there won't be a sheriff in all the country who could enforce the GPA requirement.

Just as players could skate around it by taking easy classes, coaches could sabotage their players by enrolling them in tough ones.

"You don't think some coaches are going to go, 'Let's put him in Microbiology II so we can bring his GPA down?' " UCA men's basketball Coach Russ Pennell. "It's going to be some crazy stuff to try and regulate that within your own house."

This day is coming.

And all the efforts made by the Sun Belt to boost its prestige -- adding a conference championship game in football, creating pod scheduling in basketball -- will be moot if its best talent gets poached by higher-profile teams.

How consistent will a roster be in the Southland Conference when a freshman, pressed for playing time, will shift to another mid-major program in hopes of proving his worth to transfer to an SEC school?

What will become of programs in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, when its already understaffed compliance departments have to suddenly prevent the additional recruiting violations that could occur with season-to-season transferring?

The financial viability of most athletic programs -- all but 20 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision lose money on their athletic programs, according to a 2014 NCAA study -- will plunge while donors, season-ticket holders and TV subscribers lose interest in a system where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

This can happen very quickly.

How do you stop it?

You must go down to where this whole argument began and renew trust in the bond that's been broken over and over -- the relationship between a player and coach.

"The whole key in this new era is relationships with players," said Pennell, who has never added a Division I transfer in five years at UCA because he wanted to build from within. "You have to develop a culture where it's more like a family. I think you can get pretty darn close to where it becomes, 'I could never walk out on my coach or my teammates.' That happens in the recruiting process."

The recruiting process is where that relationship begins, and it's what players point to when they've been wronged.

Coaches have swaggered into living rooms, brought players onto campus with promises of playing time and championships, then leave for another job when the next school's boosters pay for a contract buyout.

It's what Sutton told Kansas State's Snyder.

"Coaches can leave. So why can't a player leave?" Sutton told CBS Sports.

Pennell agreed with Sutton's sentiment, and he said "players ought to be able to leave with no penalty if the coach leaves," but if they followed the coach "they would have to sit out a year" because that would be "a little unethical."

That's really the better change, because it creates what would be lost in a free-agency tailspin -- balance.

Sports on 06/17/2018

Print Headline: Rule a step toward college free agency

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