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NCAA transfer waivers needed clarification

Among the many changes the NCAA is currently undertaking, the codification of simplified transfer rules is probably not among its top two or three priorities. But it is a priority all the same. As Dana O'Neil reported this summer, the NCAA has recognized the mess that is the modern transfer market, where 40 percent of all Division I freshmen eventually switch schools. At the time, Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs, acknowledged as much, and advocated for an eventual simplification across all sports and situations.

The hardship waiver request -- in which a player requests an override of the usual one-year waiting period for reasons of family medical or financial hardship -- is just one facet in all of this, but it may have been the one most in need of a strong outward clarification. Its use has only become more frequent in recent years, and suspicions have increased along with it. What if players are merely using the hardship request to complete a transfer more quickly? This kind of skullduggery doesn't seem all that frequent, but how do we know? And how are these things decided anyway? And so now we're back to square one: in need of clarification.

This weekend, the NCAA moved exactly in that direction, setting new guidelines and restrictions for the use of hardship waiver requests. Citing a "belief among the membership that waiver decisions were not consistent from case to case" and a "response to current waiver trends," the NCAA loosened restrictions on what qualifies as a potential medical reason for hardship (it lowered the standard from "life-threatening" to "debilitating" and "regular" as opposed to "primary" caregiving responsibilities) while also asking for documentation from the school.

But this is the really key change:

The school is within a 100-mile radius of the immediate family member’s home, which demonstrates the ability for the student-athlete to provide regular, ongoing care. Previously, no distance limitation was in place.

None of these things are drastic, but that distance requirement is the key one. It was probably the easiest to stretch, for those looking to use the rule as a loophole. Now, it's an easy, round number. Your family must be this close to your school for you to attempt to play immediately upon transferring. Easy enough.

At the very least, this should decrease some of the confusion here. Hardship waiver requests are one of the NCAA's main organizational black boxes. In July, I asked the NCAA for its numbers on hardship waiver requests; I wanted to see how many illness-related decisions had been granted. As the NCAA told me in July, over the past five years it has approved about half of all transfer waiver requests, hardship and otherwise. But it didn't distinguish between family illness or other causes, so it's hard to tease out exactly how consistent the rule has been, or whether it is being applied (and applied for) fairly.

So, no, this doesn't rank highly in the annals of NCAA reform. It won't revolutionize the burgeoning transfer mess. But it will make it easier for the NCAA to deal with, and explain, the hardship waiver issue -- something basketball fans are all too familiar with -- and that's progress of a sort, too.