Q&A: ESPN's Jay Bilas criticizes Duke football's restrictions on former quarterback Thomas Sirk's transfer

<p>Thomas Sirk will play his final season of eligibility at East Carolina, but was not allowed to transfer to any school on Duke's schedule next year.</p>

Thomas Sirk will play his final season of eligibility at East Carolina, but was not allowed to transfer to any school on Duke's schedule next year.

Last week, ESPN college basketball analyst and former Blue Devil Jay Bilas criticized Pittsburgh on Twitter for restricting guard Cameron Johnson from transferring to another ACC school. Bilas extended his criticisms to Duke’s treatment of former quarterback Thomas Sirk, who was not allowed to transfer to any team on Duke’s schedule next year and eventually settled on East Carolina.

The Chronicle’s Hank Tucker spoke with Bilas on the phone to go into more detail about how the NCAA and individual schools treat transfer athletes. Their conversation has been condensed for clarity. When Duke’s football program was given an opportunity to respond to some of Bilas’ criticisms and clarify how transfer situations are dealt with, it declined to comment through a team spokesman.

The Chronicle: What was it about Cameron Johnson’s case at Pittsburgh that tipped you and several national writers over the edge and made you feel like you had to voice your opinion?

Jay Bilas: It’s not just that—I’ve been doing this for years. People in this area paid attention to it because it was the ACC and it caught your attention because of it. I have been on this issue for a lot of years and the issue is, really, pretty simple. The athletes are either employees or they are not. The NCAA and the member institutions say pretty clearly that athletes are not employees. They say that they are students that just happen to be athletes and they are students that should be treated like any other student.

No other person is restricted in any way in their movement from school to school, and if athletics are truly an extracurricular activity, no other student is told they cannot leave and no prior school has any say in where a student can go next. I think it is profoundly wrong for the NCAA to allow schools to do this and for schools to do it.

The fact that they’re allowed to do it by NCAA rules doesn’t make it right—it’s profoundly wrong and what a transfer restriction really is, is a non-compete provision that would be in an employment contract. It’s not only tantamount to that, but it is also equal to that and these are unpaid, amateur students according to the NCAA and the University of Pittsburgh. So how Pittsburgh has any say in what Cam Johnson does next is flat-out wrong and similarly, it’s flat-out wrong what Duke did to Thomas Sirk and what Duke does to anyone.

It’s not a question of this school or that school. It’s not a question of whether Pittsburgh has good people or they’re well-intentioned and nice or whether Duke has good people and they treated their players well. It’s a question of policy and this policy is wrong. All of the excuses they use and the rationalizations about, ‘Well, it’s competitive disadvantage,” are nonsense.

What this admits is that the players are assets of the university—as any employee of the university would be an asset. They want to restrict players so that they can control their assets and retain them, and it’s wrong to the point of being immoral.

TC: Do you think it’s more unjustifiable with graduate transfers, like Johnson or Sirk, or do you think rules for undergraduates should be more lenient as well?

JB: The graduate transfer situation adds the additional layer of the player has done everything that the school says is important to them—that is, graduate. I don’t think it makes a difference. I don’t think a school should have a say in a player leaving and where that player may go. If another school wants a player, then the prior school should have absolutely no say in that.

Now, there are a lot of idiots out there that like to take things to an extreme and say, ‘Well, what do you want? Do you want a player to be able to transfer at halftime to another team?’ That’s wholly stupid and unreasonable—you could say the same thing about an employer.

Coaches basically have free movement, depending on what their contracts say—practically, coaches leave whenever they want to and the schools don’t do anything about it. They don’t enforce any provision they may have contractually because they don’t want to limit their ability to get another coach and scare another coach away in hiring. But nobody ever says, ‘Do you want a coach to be able to switch at halftime?’ That’s absurd. It’s stupid and it should never even be factored in.

After the players finish the season, there’s no reason the players should have to stay there if he or she doesn’t want to, and we’ve got different transfer rules in different sports, which indicates that there’s no policy to any of this. There’s no principle involved, so for example, a women’s softball player can transfer and play right away but a football player cannot. It’s stupid and it goes against what the NCAA says it’s all about. I don’t think any of these people who put these transfer restrictions on players can, out the other side of their mouths, even be heard to say ‘student-athlete welfare’ without being laughed at.

TC: Duke let Michael Gbinije transfer to Syracuse a few years ago in men’s basketball when it was on its way into the ACC, and Sean Obi was considering Georgia Tech this spring. Have you ever talked to Coach K about how he handles these situations and do you think it makes him more appealing to the players he recruits?

JB: I’ve not talked to him about it and I would imagine that any player would want to factor something like that in. Usually when people get married, they don’t think about divorce. You’re not thinking—when you accept a scholarship and decide to go play for somebody—what your exit strategy might be if it doesn’t work out. I don’t think it’s a big factor for a player. Usually, they find out later on when they want to leave and that’s when it hits them like a ton of bricks and it’s horribly unfair. It’s horribly wrong.

Just for example, Duke’s nonsensical statement on Thomas Sirk—now, Duke will tell you that their breakup with Thomas Sirk was amicable, that they treated him fairly and all that stuff. That’s fine, and maybe Thomas Sirk is thrilled to death with being at East Carolina. I have no idea and that’s not the point. The point is there was no reason to put any transfer restrictions on him at all.

So Duke is worried about his knowledge of the program for, potentially, one game they may play? One game? An athlete’s going to be restricted as to his future upon one football game? It may not even be one. They may not even play at all, yet, if Thomas Sirk chose to give up football and take a job at the University of North Carolina as an assistant coach, he could give the entire playbook to North Carolina. He could write a book and detail “The Duke Way” if he wants to. But boy, he can’t go play somewhere else. That’s laughably absurd and it’s an extreme rationalization of an excuse for doing the wrong thing.

Any restriction on a player as to where they go is just wrong—it’s wrong if Duke does it, it’s wrong if Pittsburgh does it, it’s wrong if UNLV does it, it’s wrong if Harvard does it. It’s just wrong, period, and that’s why I make no distinction that I went to school at Duke. I love Duke, I love the people there, but their restrictions on Thomas Sirk were wrong.

TC: Is this something the NCAA can fix with a simple rule change or are these policies coming from coaches, conferences, administrators that each school needs to address individually?

JB: It’s both. Just because it’s allowed—the NCAA rules allow schools to restrict. They don’t require it, they allow it, and could the NCAA fix this? You’re darn right they could. They could fix it tomorrow, and the silence coming out of Indianapolis on these cases is equally wrong. Mark Emmert and his colleagues should stand up and say, ‘This is wrong.’ They have no problem stepping up and giving their opinion when we talk about pay for players or providing more for a player, and they say they’re not employees.

Why aren’t they standing up and saying now, they’re not employees and this shouldn’t be enforced this way? This is wrong. But given that the NCAA allows this, it doesn’t mean that the schools doing it, it makes it right. It does not make it right. They tend to rationalize it by saying, ‘Well, this is allowed. This is our policy.’ Well, just because it’s your policy doesn’t make your policy right.

TC: Why do you think so many more athletes transfer now than when you were playing 30 years ago?

JB: They transfer for a lot of reasons, but it doesn’t matter why they transfer. If you want your players to stay, treat them better. That’s all there is to it. This is a very simple analysis. Players have the right to transfer. They transfer, that’s fine. What difference does it make whether they’re not happy there academically or they don’t like their coach or they think they should play more or it wasn’t a good fit or they want to be closer to home or they were unhappy?

Whatever it is, they should be allowed to go wherever they want. They’re not employees. I think they are the equivalent of an employee, but the NCAA says they’re not, and the NCAA cannot have it both ways on this. And when I say the NCAA, I am including the member institutions, which includes Pittsburgh and Duke. They can’t claim they’re not employees and then all of a sudden treat them as if they were, and that’s exactly what this is, and it is nonsense to say or imply, ‘Oh boy, we don’t want to play against these guys, it’s a competitive disadvantage.’

Thomas Sirk left because Daniel Jones is going to be the starter, and absent somebody getting hurt or something, he’s not going to play, and Duke said they supported his transfer 100 percent. Well, clearly they didn’t, because they restricted his transfer, so they didn’t support it 100 percent. That doesn’t mean they didn’t treat him well or they don’t like him or they didn’t want him to stay, but it means he’s not good enough to start there, but he’s too good to play against. This business about him having knowledge of their program, so if he was only there for a short period and didn’t pay attention and didn’t have knowledge, it would be okay for him to transfer anywhere? And they don’t want to set a precedent?

Well, their basketball coach set a precedent that you can transfer within the conference, so Duke doesn’t have a policy with regard to that. Is it whatever the coach wants? Who’s in charge? I’d like to know who’s in charge, because it’s wrong. It’s wrong when David Cutcliffe does it, it’s wrong when [Pittsburgh men’s basketball head coach] Kevin Stallings does it, it’s wrong if [North Carolina men’s basketball head coach] Roy Williams does it, it’s wrong, period.

TC: What’s made you feel the need throughout your career to be a consistent vocal advocate for student-athletes with paying players, this issue and others that have come up?

JB: I cover college sports for ESPN, and I don’t just cover the product on the floor, I cover the entire landscape of the game. I comment on policy, and when I think a policy is right, I say so, when I think a policy is wrong, I say so. I was not hired to be a cheerleader, I was hired to comment on the important issues in and around the game, and I do that. People may agree or disagree, that’s fine, but I’m consistent, and I think my stance on this issue has been absolutely consistent.

Update: Pittsburgh's Johnson committed to North Carolina Tuesday afternoon as a graduate transfer, but is still fighting for the right to be immediately eligible next season.

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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