The Portal Changes All

It was subtle, but it said it all.

Last week in a column he cleverly titles “Open Jim”, new Wisconsin State Journal sports page editor Jim Polzin answers a reader’s question, which goes like this: “What does the Wisconsin men’s basketball team need in the transfer portal?”

The “transfer portal” is a phrase that has now become as common among sportscasters and columnists as “athleticism”. (Why is it worth noting that a highly talented athlete who has gotten to the Division 1 level of college sports or the professional leagues is exhibiting “athleticism”?)

Polzin, who, by the way, I think is doing a nice job in giving the page some new life and new interests, answered the question in detail. You can read it for yourself, but basically we need a guard who can shoot, at the very least.

But here’s the thing. Nowhere in his answer was there anything about needing a business major with a 3.0 GPA or better. That’s as it should be. There’s no reason for a sports reporter or a fan or anybody else to care about the student side of the mythical “student-athlete.”

The portal is purely about athletes shopping around for the best chance to play — and maybe while they’re at it pick up an endorsement deal for a local car dealership or something. Nobody even bothers to pretend that these are students transferring for academic reasons.

In fact, you can’t get through five minutes of a March Madness broadcasts without the announcers giving you the travel itinerary of some player on the court. He went to Duke, but then transferred to Michigan and is spending his last year of eligibility at Iowa State. That kind of thing.

When Avery LaBarbera transferred to the UW nobody bothered to pretend that it was for academic reasons.

This is becoming true all over college sports, not just men’s football and basketball. Last week, according to another Wisconsin State Journal story, the UW announced that four-year starter Avery LaBarbera would transfer from Holy Cross to join the women’s basketball squad as a point guard for her last year of eligibility. UW coach Marisa Moseley and LaBarbera talked about the relationship they developed when Moseley coached another team in the Patriot League. There was no reference to any academic reason for the transfer. 

The portal is improving the games on every level. Until last year, the NCAA made it very hard for a player to transfer schools. Players had to sit out for a year when they changed schools, losing a complete year of eligibility. That was designed to essentially keep the servants indentured. To hear the NCAA tell it, freedom of movement was going to spell the end of college athletics as we knew it. Except, of course, that it didn’t. We’ve now gone through a complete season of college football and nearly a full season of basketball with the portal and the world did not come to an end. Money is still being printed. 

It’s easy to understand why this would be the case. Say you’re a very good player for one of the premier programs. But that team is so good that you’re sitting. Well, you toss your name into the portal and you go play for a team that will make you a starter. This is essentially the free market working at its best. Everybody benefits. The players get to play and the fans get a better product on the court.

In fact, the transfer portal exposes the “student-athlete” label for the hoax that it is. Players are now freely transferring between schools entirely because of athletics. Nobody even bothers to pretend that it’s about a change in academic interests.

I’m not sure the NCAA and the big athletic programs, like Wisconsin’s, understood what they were doing when they finally caved on the transfer issue after a long fight. They were fighting harder against the ability of players to benefit from their own name, image and likeness — those commercials for car dealers. But while NIL is fine, it only benefits a handful of star athletes. What really needs to happen is for the schools to pay the players a regular salary like the employees that they are.

After all, the NCAA makes more than $1 billion a year from March Madness, most of it from TV rights, but some from ticket sales. And none of it goes to the players. Not a dime. And that’s why the NCAA and the UW athletic department still want you to think that these are “student-athletes.” It’s their sole justification for not paying for the athletes’ labor. You think they fought hard over the transfer policy and harder over NIL? They’ll fight to the death over actually paying the players a salary because that will nick their own robust slices of the pie.

But the portal has now so fully exposed the “student-athlete” scam for what it is, that they can’t put the genie back in the bottle. This year, just maybe, the Road to the Final Four will also be the road to paying the players what they’re worth.

A version of this piece originally appeared in Isthmus.

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Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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