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What I'm Hearing: USA TODAY Sports' Dan Wolken explains the timing of the NCAA decision to crack down on student athletes that transfer schools. USA TODAY

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The NCAA Division I council approved a package of updated guidelines Wednesday that could make it more difficult for college football and basketball players who transfer to receive immediate eligibility via waivers.

Though the NCAA is characterizing the changes as minor clarifications to guidelines that were already in place, they do appear to specify and narrow the circumstances in which athletes should be given waivers, according to a document outlining the updated language obtained by USA TODAY Sports. The new language also goes into more specific detail about the documentation required for a waiver, which can be extensive in cases where an athlete is seeking immediate eligibility on the grounds of an injury or illness to themselves or an immediate family member.

The new guidelines are not rules but essentially a set of directions for the NCAA staff that makes initial waiver decisions, which can then be appealed to the Committee on Legislative Relief. They are thought to be in response to a significant increase in the number of waiver requests being submitted to the NCAA this summer and growing frustration among some schools and fans about decisions that appear to be inconsistent in cases that seem to be similar.

In 2018, the NCAA adopted a new standard that would allow waivers to be granted on a case-by-case basis by the committee if the athlete could demonstrate “documented mitigating circumstances outside of the student-athlete’s control and directly impacts the health, safety or well-being of the student-athlete.” 

That change helped clear several high-profile football players to play immediately last season including quarterback Shea Patterson, who transferred to Michigan in the wake of the NCAA issuing significant penalties at Ole Miss. 

The updated language of that same guideline is less broad, requiring “documented extenuating, extraordinary and mitigating circumstances outside of the student-athlete’s control that directly impacts the health, safety or well-being of the student-athlete.” 

The addition of those two words — extenuating and extraordinary — as well as other language throughout the proposal, appears to send the message that the NCAA wants to tighten up on the requirements for waivers. 

“Across the board, the proposed new guidelines raise the bar for schools seeking a waiver on behalf of a student-athlete,” said attorney Tom Mars, who has represented a number of high-profile athletes in waiver cases over the last year. “Given the dramatic increase in the number of waivers being sought for the 2019-20 season, raising the bar strikes me as a sensible short-term reaction by the Legislative Council.”

Among the other key changes:

In cases where an athlete was run off by a coach or essentially had their scholarship pulled for non-disciplinary reasons, the NCAA will require a written statement from the athletics director at the previous school stating whether the athlete would not have had an opportunity to return to the team and why the athlete is transferring. The committee is being instructed to deny cases where the athlete can’t document that they’ve been run off. That marks a change from prior protocol, where a key determining factor in "run off" situations was whether the previous school objected to the waiver request. 

The previous guidelines allowed waivers to be granted for “egregious behavior by a staff member or student at the previous institution” as long as the previous school did not oppose the waiver, giving the committee a fairly broad window to view those claims. The updated version says waivers should be granted for documented cases where the athlete was a victim of “physical assault or abuse, sexually inappropriate behavior, racial abuse, religious discrimination, questioning of sexuality by a staff member or student at the previous institution” though the definition isn’t limited to those areas. 

In cases where athletes transfer within 100-mile radius of their to home due to injury or illness to an immediate family member or because of a pregnancy, the NCAA’s proposal requires more paperwork from both schools, including “a treatment plan detailing the student-athlete’s caregiving responsibilities.”

Though it’s unclear whether these guidelines will discourage schools from attempting to obtain waivers, they appear to be a patchwork attempt at addressing the narrative that the NCAA is moving toward free agency in the transfer market. These waivers, along with the introduction last fall of the so-called “transfer portal” that makes it easier for athletes to initiate the transfer process, have put the entire issue at the forefront of debate within the NCAA.

The numbers don't necessarily indicate that much has changed in terms of how the waivers are adjudicated. Last month, the Associated Press reported that the committee for legislative relief had approved 68% of waiver requests for football, which was actually a two-percentage point decrease compared to the previous four years. Overall requests across all sports increased to more than 250 in 2018-19 from more than 150 the previous year, according to AP.

A softening of the rules, however, has encouraged some athletes with shaky waiver cases to test the system and raised concerns about consistency. Because of privacy laws, the details and nuances from case to case aren't made public, fueling even more criticism.

While many athletes such as high-profile quarterbacks Justin Fields (Georgia to Ohio State) and Tate Martell (Ohio State to Miami) have been granted waivers for reasons that publicly appear to be ambiguous,  fans have questioned why tight end Luke Ford (Georgia to Illinois) and offensive lineman Brock Hoffman (Coastal Carolina to Virginia Tech), both of whom cited ill family members in their waivers, were denied. 

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