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How a Punter Could Change the NCAA Forever

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Free agency may be looming in college sports

National Championship - Oregon v Ohio State Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Kickers, man. Kickers are a different breed; if they’re not kicking barefoot or tearing ligaments celebrating a made kick, they’re fundamentally altering the fabric of college athletics.

Perhaps I should explain the last bit.

There is a D-I punter by the name of Peter Deppe. He enrolled at Northern Illinois in 2014; he walked-on at NIU and accepted a redshirt at the request of the coaching staff with the intent of having 4 years of scholarship kicking duties starting in 2015. However, after the 2014 season, the special teams coach left NIU to take a job at Kansas, and the NIU head coach (Rod Carey) signed another punter and pulled Deppe’s scholarship offer. NIU gave Deppe a full release from the school, and he was subsequently recruited by the University of Iowa. The Hawkeyes said they had a scholarship for him if he could be eligible for the 2016 season. Deppe — a mechanical engineering major with a 3.1 GPA — seemed to have all the academic requirements to be eligible. So why isn’t he kicking for Kirk Ferentz? In short, because the NCAA said he couldn’t. Deppe’s family contacted the NCAA in September 2015 to check his eligibility to play immediately, but in the NCAA’s eyes Deppe was transferring from one school to another and as such he had to sit out a year. They wouldn’t grant him a waiver, despite him not actually being on scholarship at NIU when he transferred. Iowa moved onto another punter with immediate eligibility and Deppe was left out in the cold once again, eventually giving up football and enrolling at Kettering University to complete his degree.

In March of 2016, Peter Deppe sued the NCAA over their transfer rules, alleging the transfer rules violate anti-trust laws. He and his legal team are seeking class-action status for all players dating back to 2011, with the goal of abolishing the transfer rule for football, basketball, baseball and men’s ice hockey. (TIL most NCAA sports don’t have the transfer rule.) Deppe and his lawyers are also attacking scholarship limits as anti-competitive in the same lawsuit, though the primary focus is the transfer rule.

Will the lawsuit be successful? A legal analysis seems pessimistic:

There are a number of reasons listed in that analysis why this case may fail to bring about substantive changes in how the NCAA does business — the NCAA has already filed their rejection of Deppe’s legal standing and the courts have denied class-action status on a similar case — however it’s worth noting that the firm representing Deppe is the same one that took on the NCAA in the landmark O’Bannon case and won, and as such shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

This case may be a sign the shift away from the transfer rule is inevitable. As Jeff Goodman of ESPN notes, NCAA basketball coaches overwhelmingly believe the rule’s days are coming to an end sooner than later, and the problems the coaches see pervades every level of D-I. High-major coaches — well, not Calipari, because of course he’s not — are worried about every off-season being a free-for-all on their bench players, mid-major coaches are worried about high-majors poaching the undiscovered gems that keep mid-major coaches employed, and low-major coaches are worried about never gaining relevance. The basketball transfer market is already double the size it was a few years ago, and striking down the transfer rule would likely exacerbate the logistics of managing a roster for college coaches everywhere.

Who you side with on this lawsuit is probably pretty indicative of your view of the larger issue of paying college athletes; each view has its merits, and each side has flaws. If you allow athletes to transfer without penalty, you’re adding to the coaches’ workload; if you keep the penalty in place, you’re inviting situations like Deppe’s where the majority of D-I athletes are able to be left holding the bag on a decision that will add tens of thousands of dollars in student debt to their ledger — in Michigan native Deppe’s case, the two years’ worth of scholarships is worth ~$64,000 as an out-of-state student at NIU & Iowa — due to circumstances out of their control. Personally, I’m likely to side with the players on this issue. From a pragmatic point of view, coaching staffs are more able to absorb the incremental increase in workload as they’re already recruiting year-round as it is, and the NCAA could easily allow for an increased headcount to offset the workload. The players have no such luxury, and moreover they’re more vulnerable to financial difficulties if they lose a scholarship in the manner Deppe lost his. That said, there has to be other options that could be opened up to meet in the middle. Let’s say for the sake of argument the transfer rule is abolished. Perhaps — in addition to the standard 1-year scholarship offers currently on the table — schools could offer 4-year scholarships with two escape clauses; 1) the player has to stay at the school for a minimum of two years, and 2) the scholarship offer can be nullified with a change of coaching staffs. This allows players to move on if the coach is fired or leaves to take another job, but also gives the coaching staff some continuity in the roster and blunts some of the potential tampering/recruiting by other schools. It also allows for the 1-and-done blue chip basketball recruits to snag a shorter-term scholarship offer, so the high-major schools can continue to compete for the elite recruits. Seems like a win/win to me.

Deppe’s case is definitely worth keeping an eye on over the next few months, as the impact of a ruling in his favor is hard to overstate for fans of college athletics.