Across the country, millions of high school student-athletes don the colors of the local community’s school, and wear them with pride. The letterman jacket and uniform serve as a representation of where they are from and, often, who they are. However, when athletes trade one school’s uniform for another, state associations must determine if the transfer is legitimate or whether the athlete is looking for the best avenue to promote his or her athletic skills.
The NFHS and its member state associations believe having a well-defined transfer/residency requirement assists in the prevention of students changing schools in conjunction with the change of athletic seasons, thus impairing the ability for recruitment of athletes from one school to another. The NFHS and its state associations also promote the principle that a student should attend the high school in the district where the student’s parent(s) or guardian(s) reside.
“If you don’t have transfer rules, parents are going to transfer their kids in athletics because they want a perceived better athletic opportunity,” said Indiana High School Athletic Association Commissioner Bobby Cox. “They are not making academics their first and foremost consideration. Having a transfer rule creates some questions to ensure we are maintaining our purpose.”
Cox said that the IHSAA was formed more than 111 years ago to provide standards and rules for interscholastic athletics and to keep athletics subservient to the academic purposes of its membership.
One of the key factors with each transfer policy is whether there is a bona fide family move or residency change that leads to a student changing schools. State associations have variations of what constitutes a move; and as recent population changes have occurred, some states have had to change the handling of student movements.
The United States Census Bureau reported that 36.5 million Americans moved in 2012, up 1.4 million from the previous year. The same report indicated of those who moved, 40.2 percent settled less than 50 miles away. As each state association adapts its policies in response to the population flow, the common question remains: “was there a bona fide family move?.”
It would seem the answer should be simple, but it can, in fact, be quite complicated.
Most of the NFHS member state associations have nearly identical policies indicating that a bona fide family move permits the student-athlete to have immediate eligibility. Many have other permissible reasons that allow transfer students immediate eligibility. The Texas University Interscholastic League has a slight variation where if the student enrolls after the sixth day of school then, he or she must sit out 15 days before gaining full eligibility.
Without a bona fide family move, ineligibility periods vary from state to state with nearly half of the state associations imposing a one-year ineligibility period.
Cox said August is when many of his state’s transfer requests are received and handled.
“When people are changing and starting school, myself and the four assistant commissioners that deal with these directly, spend the majority of our time working on transfers and eligibility requests,” Cox said.
He added that with the increase in the number of families moving in Indiana, the IHSAA has the challenge of handling more than 4,000 transfer requests in a year.
Another issue facing the IHSAA is the Indiana Department of Education’s open enrollment policy. Any student is able to change schools, but his or her athletic eligibility is not portable unless certain criteria are met.
“We start with a bona fide change of residence and if (the student) accomplishes that, so long as they are eligible in all other accounts, they gain full eligibility,” Cox said. “Without a change of residence, they start with limited eligibility.”
The limited eligibility allows student-athletes to participate in junior varsity events. Cox said the bylaws provide ways for transferring students to gain full eligibility. Most of the IHSAA transfer appeals stem from students having partial eligibility and the parents wanting full eligibility granted.
“The belief by some parents is that the State of Indiana lets my kids go from School A to School B and money follows them, why can’t they play sports,” Cox said. “We remind our parents that it is outside our purpose and we have to make sure that athletics remain subservient to the academic programs of our membership.”
The Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) has made a few policy changes recently, going from a very liberal policy allowing nearly free-will transfers to a more stricter one-year ineligibility period. Now, it has established a version of the 50 percent sit out.
“We have gone through a metamorphosis over the past 20-some years,” said Dr. Deborah Moore, OHSAA associate commissioner for eligibility. “Now we feel we have a policy that at least cannot be argued as any kind of irreparable harm to students.”
The new policy states that if a student transfers after establishing eligibility as a ninth-grader, and at least one of seven exceptions are not met, then he or she must sit out for 50 percent of the scheduled regular season. This only applies to sports that the student played during the previous 12 months. Moore said that reasons for the transfer — athletic or not — are not a determining factor — only if an exception is met.
Moore said the investigation of transfers is the responsibility of the member schools and the OHSAA typically will only investigate if a complaint is brought to its attention. Despite not having the burden of investigating each transfer request, the OHSAA still faces several challenges including processing the request and assisting the schools and athletic administrators in deciphering the bylaws.
“We try to offer many kinds of resources, from face-to-face meetings to email blasts, to use of social media, to website resource centers — all to support the education process,” Moore said. “Yet it remains a significant challenge for both our new administrators and our veterans.”
Different from many other state association rules, Ohio established a 50-mile rule, which states that if a student transfers due to a bona fide family move during the school year and the move is less than 50 miles away, then that student is ineligible. If the move is greater than 50 miles, then the student would be immediately eligible.
The New Mexico Activities Association (NMAA) took the opposite approach from Ohio. In 2011, the NMAA increased the ineligibility period from 90 days to 180 to close a loophole of sorts that essentially allowed students to sit out for the ineligibility period and not miss any time of their sport’s next season.
NMAA Assistant Director of Sports Rudy Aragon said that one-sport athletes could finish their sport’s season and transfer to a new school and be eligible by the next season.
“There are loopholes everywhere if you are really focused on finding them,” Aragon said. “I think the 90 to 180 made it much more difficult to transfer without having to uproot and move from one home to another.”
The tougher penalty could entice parents or guardians to submit false documents to avoid the longer ineligibility period. Trying to prevent and investigate these type of situations has become a tremendous challenge for the NMAA.
“Oftentimes parents will provide the NMAA with false documents in hopes of gaining eligibility for their son/daughter,” Aragon said. “The challenge for us is making sure that all student-athletes and member schools within our state are subject to a level playing field.”
New Mexico has eliminated its policy disallowing transfers for athletic purposes. Aragon said this was done due to the difficulties of proving the reason for the move. There are, however, bylaws against students transferring to a school that is coached by the same person who coaches that student’s non-school team and providing undue influence.
“Transferring to follow a coach is bottom line cut and dry,” Aragon said. “The undue influence is hard to prove sometimes. If we don’t have documentation, there is not a lot we can do.”
The NMAA receives calls regularly reporting violations of its transfer bylaws and often will notify the school involved to start the initial investigation. Depending on the finding, the NMAA will hire a private investigator to further address the allegations.
The bottom line for every state association is how to provide the best educational and athletic experience for all their student-athletes.
“The whole transfer bylaw is centered on educational reasons,” Moore said. “We know for the majority of the students, a stable educational placement is best. Moving schools frequently is generally not conducive to the best academic preparation.”
Jason Haddix is coordinator of sports at the NFHS after serving internships in the Publications/Communications Department. He is a 2013 graduate of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis where he earned a bachelor’s degree in medical imaging and a certificate in journalism.