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Shall we talk about the transfer portal?

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Greg Gard came out with a hot take, let’s break it down!

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Wisconsin at North Carolina Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s anything that’s going to bring your boy out of blogging retirement, it’s the intersection of educational policy and college athletics. Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball head coach Greg Gard joined Wilde and Tausch earlier this week and shared his perspective on the transfer portal. I encourage you to read Evan Flood’s post on Badger247 before continuing so you can be sure I am not misrepresenting Gard’s point.

I find this fascinating, since I believe there is earnest, converging interest here. Gard, as well as most interlocutors on Twitter, seem to have the students’ best interest in heart. This is where I come in, how can we actually tell what’s best for students? To do so, I will recap the arguments presented by Gard and the ensuing Twitter banter, analyze the transfer portal policy, and share my opinion on the policy and best educational practice.

I will make a concession that to fully analyze this is a massive undertaking, and I will take some shortcuts. I think this transfer portal conversation could be fully analyzed in a dissertation, but maybe not in a blog post.

The arguments

I believe Gard’s argument boils down to this:

  1. We are in a culture of avoiding hardship instead of facing it.
  2. There is a risk that student athletes will not develop the skill to face adversity; instead, they will transfer to a new school.
  3. This will ill-equip student athletes to deal with adversity in the future.
  4. Student athletes might learn to blame other people instead of working on bettering themselves.

Further, Evan Flood adds few more points that are worth considering:

  1. The number of transfers in the portal are increasing, and that is a problem.
  2. Gard says that transfers are okay, as long as they are for the right reasons.
  3. Gard isn’t really making a policy argument or saying that things should change.

Gard and Flood are making student-centered arguments here, which I completely respect. While I think there are some weaknesses to the logic presented above, I love that this is where the conversation is, and I’m not trying to dunk on Gard or Flood. I want to add my perspective into the discourse in a way that can’t easily be done on social media.

I also want to acknowledge that this doesn’t really cover the financial and basketball implications of a transfer policy. Gard did not go there, and I hypothesize that an increase in transfers might destabilize both the quality of play and the financial stability of Division 1 athletics.

The weak counter-arguments

Frankly, most of the counter-arguments I’ve seen are pretty weak and don’t really address Gard and Flood’s points. Instead, these counters go against the points that Gard did not make.

  1. Coaches make a lot of money and will leave for more money at any point.
  2. Gard is concerned that his team is getting worse. #FireGard

These counter-arguments are essentially Tu Quoque fallacies. Instead of addressing the point at hand, it points out the hypocrisy of the other party. Here, it doesn’t really matter if Gard is a hypocrite or a good coach. It doesn’t change the impact of the transfer portal on student athletes’ development.

Policy analysis

Let me take you through my thought process in evaluating both the transfer portal policy and Gard’s critique. First, Gard does not really offer an alternative solution to the transfer portal; he wants student athletes to transfer for the right reasons. This is a bit of a truism that brings up more questions for me. Who determines what the best interests are for a student to transfer? What policy changes would evaluate and enforce those best interests? I don’t know what Gard’s answer would be, but feel free to hit me up on Twitter, coach!

Next, there is one assumption Gard makes that I believe lacks evidence: that we are in an era that is too focused on instant gratification and conflict avoidance. This seems like a generalization fallacy or part-to-whole fallacy. That’s a big claim that requires a ton of evidence

On the other hand, our brains aren’t fully developed until about 25 years old. So it makes sense to doubt an 18 or 19 year old’s ability to make life-changing decisions like transferring schools. The risk-reward calculations of the brain aren’t fully there yet, so it is important in that age to get quality advice and guidance. The natural question comes back, who provides that guidance, and is that guidance enforced?

Now I want to turn to Flood’s point that more transfers in the portal means something is wrong. So, let’s investigate! Is the increase in transfers a problem? Generally, we can start with benchmarking, where we can get a sense if a change is normal. Perhaps D1 basketball transfers were artificially low and are now progressing to the mean.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s 2015 report on transfer students in the Fall 2008 cohort, over ⅓ of all students enrolled in higher education have transferred at least once. Of those who have transferred, nearly half have transferred more than once. Depending on the college, transfer students make up between 13% and 40% of new enrollees. UW-Madison hovers on the lower end of that range, and other schools of similar stature, like Cal-Berkley, hover around 33%.

That seems like a good benchmark. If the proportion of incoming basketball players are about ⅕-⅓ transfers, then this change is still within the normal boundaries of higher education transfers. According to verbalcommits.com, there are 909 transfers in the portal as of writing. My colleague Matt Belz brought up a good point, too, that several of these transfers are typically out of eligibility. Wisconsin’s Trevor Anderson and Nate Reuvers, for example, are in the portal but would be ineligible for transfer except for the COVID eligibility year. Therefore, we can exclude, on the most conservative side, 77 redshirt seniors in the portal. There are also 179 seniors (not redshirted) in the portal. I will do one set of numbers including them and one set excluding them.

The average number of players transferring, depending on senior inclusion, is 1.3 - 2.3 transfers per team. The median, no matter how you cut it, is two players per team. So let’s go with that.

On average, the typical team can expect to gain two players via transfer, assuming everyone in the portal finds a D1 home. Given that a college men’s basketball team has about 16 players and adds on average four freshmen a year, the typical team will add six players in the fall, two of whom are transfers. That is ⅓, which is a little high, but in the range we expect. And if we ignore all seniors, that proportion is more like ⅕, which is also in the expected range. On the other hand, the 909 transfers in the portal is not a complete data set for this year’s iteration of the transfer portal, so it is reasonable to think that number could grow significantly.

The last thing to look at is the literature on why student athletes transfer, and this is a core part of Gard’s argument. Richards, Holden, and Pugh (2016) demonstrate that student-athletes transfer because of a “complex interaction of many factors.” The study suggests that perceived stress is associated with a student-athlete’s decision to transfer, which resonates with Gard’s hypothesis that students transfer because of adversity. Student athletes’ reasons for transferring include, from most common to least, “coaching style (18), playing time (eight), staff change (seven), lack of on campus support (six), and school’s social scene, loss of interest, and overall college experience (five).” The reasons that student athletes used to not transfer are school’s academics, social scene, scholarship availability, coaching style, and overall college experience.

My take

909 transfers, given the COVID eligibility rules, seems reasonable to me because of the benchmarking analysis above. Since it is on the higher side, and since Gard’s thesis that student athletes transfer due to some sort of hardship, I think Gard’s right to be concerned about how student athletes are handling this stress. There’s no doubt that stress is way up in the last year. Rumor has it that UW-Madison’s mental health services have seen a 400% increase in crisis appointments this year. This seems to explain the bump in transfers.

Fortunately, this is directly addressed by Richards, Holden, and Pugh (2016),

“If athletes who transferred or considered transfer have higher perceived stress scores, athletic programs might provide stress management training to the athletes. While it is unclear if the higher stress levels is a result of transferring or conditions leading to transfer. Stress management training might have a positive effect on retention. If the athletes’ stress induced decisions are reduced the coach might have more time to develop athletes and create a more positive outcome for all. The responsibility for stress management training might fall on the individual coach or athletic director.”

I maintain that student athlete transfers can be a symptom of some sort of institutional failure during a student’s life cycle. I don’t think this is Gard’s point, but telling students to take some toughen up pills is not an educational strategy. By the time a student athlete wants to transfer, the window of opportunity to build that athlete’s capacity is probably near closed. Being proactive is always better — address students’ concerns before they want out and are nearing crisis mode.

To address Gard, I believe it is critical to address the following questions. What is the best way to help young people build perseverance? How do we help student athletes (and students as a whole) manage stress? As a student affairs professional, that burden is partly on me. I admit that I don’t have a good answer. It is a burden I share with Gard, UW chancellor Becky Blank, UW athletic director Barry Alvarez, and anyone working at UW-Madison.

Let’s take some responsibility as an institution, as professionals who work with students, to make UW-Madison and higher education work for all students.