It was a just another text like the dozens and dozens I had received in the last year:
"Hey, did you see what (fill-in the name of a college football or basketball player) got to go to (fill-in the school)?"
"No, I didn't. What did he get?"
"He got ($$$$)!"
"Wait, he got how much to go there? And how are they getting him in? He's already transferred and I thought the NCAA was supposedly cracking down on the second free transfer?"
"He filed for a mental health waiver. The assistant at his new school told him how to do it....everyone is doing it."
And welcome to the new loophole in the transfer portal world. That's right, we now have coaches who have complained about the transfer portal and the tampering going on and instead of actually calling out coaches, they just decided to find a way to make it even dirtier. Now we have players and coaches taking advantage of something that was not created to sneak your way to a second or third free transfer without sitting out, but using it to bounce from one school to the next and coaches giving players a reason to put down on the mental health waiver.
Back in September of 2022, the NCAA was weighing the idea of just allowing athletes to transfer without sitting out every year. Athletes would have been able to play at four different schools in four seasons and be able to play immediately at each school. That proposal did not gain enough steam to pass. But the NCAA Division I Council did introduce new waiver guidelines allowing athletes to transfer for "mental health reasons." Athletes have to show "documented evidence to demonstrate that at their previous school the athlete's ability to function on a daily basis was impaired by a mental health condition." The NCAA set up in-person, online and video options for athletes to talk with mental health professionals any time.
Mental health challenges are real for everyone and college athletes are no different. The pressures to perform and meet demanding schedules on the field and in the classroom and just dealing with everyday stuff can be overwhelming for some. When that kicker misses a game winning field goal and grabs their phone after a game to read social media messages wishing death to them, that's scary and happens far too often. When a player falls short of their expected goal and feels like they have let a team and themselves down it can be a lonely world. When a winning obsessed coach unleashes on a player over and over that will wear on that player over a period of time. The list of issues is endless and there are many athletes who struggle to deal with those issues.
That is why the NCAA offered assistance knowing it's hard for anyone to come forward and ask for help, It should be something any program encourages and every school should have a support system.
So it made sense when the NCAA saw a need to offer athletes a chance to move on from a troubled situation and not be penalized for leaving a bad situation for a fresh start. But leave it to college football and basketball to take something that it was not intended for to their advantage.
It was only a matter of time when real cases regarding mental health gave players and coaches a chance to see that if one group could get a second and third free transfer without sitting out, then perhaps anyone could make up a reason related to mental health to get that waiver.
The NCAA group that reviewed mental health waivers assessed the information for each case and rarely denied approval. And then the onslaught began. Soon the amount of mental health waivers began to increase and you know where this is going. The NCAA has just so many people assigned to review those waiver requests and basically anyone applying for a mental health waiver was getting approved.
After that text from a friend who said a certain player was getting a huge sum of money to transfer again and he was filing a mental health waiver, I called around and spoke to about a half dozen people who work in college athletic departments from coaches to compliance people and even someone who used to advise athletes how to fill out those waiver forms.
While there are many real, legitimate reasons athletes seek a mental health waiver, there are many coaches advising players who they want to come to their school to use things such as: crime has increased on campus and that bothers the me, the weather in the fall and winter is not what I thought and I just don't want to go through another year dealing with that, my coach has called me names throughout the season, my position coach told me I will amount to nothing.
See the challenge here? Some of those reasons may be very real and 100% true and some may be just something to put down on a waiver form and be 100% false. But with a limited amount of NCAA staffers reviewing and investigating hundreds and hundreds of requests, you can see how it is impossible to investigate every case and determine what is true and not and the NCAA does not want the headlines of denying athletes a waiver when that athlete is dealing with mental health issues.
And so the loophole has been found and lots of football, basketball and other sports coaches and athletes are taking full advantage.
One former compliance employee who worked in the SEC for almost a decade told me: "It was a plan with good intentions but even before it was passed, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before coaches would tell players that they wanted to transfer into their program how to fill out the waiver form and do it in such a way the waiver would not be denied."
An NIL advisor who represents football players in reviewing their deals told me: "Oh, it's pretty easy to get the waiver approved. I have a few guys on their third school and there was little concern their waiver would be denied."
Maybe the transfer rule should be changed where a player can bounce from one school to another every year, but that is not the rule today. The "one-time" free transfer rule is still an active rule where a player can transfer from one school to another with automatic eligibility. But take a look at your favorite football and basketball team's roster and see how many players are at their third or fourth school. There is a good chance many of those players have filed a mental health waiver and while some had legitimate reasons to get out of a bad situation, there is also a good chance many were told what to put on that waiver knowing approval was a mere formality.
I accept that college sports can be and is dirty in a lot of areas. There are lots of good people doing good things to help athletes and good intentions can lead to unexpected consequences. If you are a coach advising a player you want to come play for you by making up a mental health issue you are a bad person and the process of doing something like that is pathetic. But unfortunately this is hard to police. And asking people to be honest in a "win-at-all cost" world leads to people making bad decisions.
Here's hoping the many athletes that need help get it. The issues are real and sadly many will not get the help they need. Here's also hoping a few coaches and even players realize cheating the system this way is wrong, but then again everybody needs to win, right?
Final thought: May is Mental Health Awareness month. If you need help, get it. There are many places to turn and don't be afraid to seek assistance.