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VOL. 133 | NO. 110 | Friday, June 1, 2018
Don Wade

Don Wade

Freedom for All? Not if You’re A Back-up Center at Alabama

By Don Wade

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In 1969, the St. Louis Cardinals decided they wanted to trade seven-time Gold Glove outfielder Curt Flood to the Philadelphia Phillies. Flood had helped the team win the World Series in 1964 and 1967. But the Cardinals believed his best days were behind him.

So the Cardinals wanted to ship him to Philadelphia. Flood didn’t want to go. He wrote commissioner Bowie Kuhn a letter challenging baseball’s reserve clause, which prevented players from changing teams unless they were traded.

“After 12 years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes,” Flood wrote.

Kuhn, of course, denied Flood’s request for free agency. Flood in turn sued him and Major League Baseball. Flood claimed baseball’s reserve clause violated antitrust laws and the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court and Flood lost a 5-3 decision, despite testimony on his behalf by former MLB players that included Jackie Robinson. But Flood’s legal action put change in motion. Soon, baseball had salary arbitration and eventually the free agency that is now taken for granted.

Sadly, college athletes have remained captive to their programs and coaches the way Flood once was. At the recent SEC spring meetings in Destin, Florida, we were reminded – as if we needed to be – that coaches such as Alabama’s Nick Saban retain absolute power while players are treated, to use Flood’s words, as pieces of property.

Saban defended his right, by SEC rules, to block graduate student Brandon Kennedy from transferring within the conference.

If you have never heard of Brandon Kennedy, it is probably because he is a backup center. In his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons, he appeared in 10 games – another anonymous 300-pounder trying to keep a backup quarterback safe and creating space for second-line running backs.

The problem here, from Saban’s point of view, is that Kennedy apparently is interested in transferring to Auburn or Tennessee. Kennedy graduated in December and as a graduate transfer would have two years of eligibility.

League rules stipulate that any transfer moving to another school within the conference must sit out a year. Saban, however, isn’t merely trying to delay Kennedy. He’s trying to stop him.

Never mind the glaring hypocrisy, never mind that last season coach Dan Mullen was on the sideline at Mississippi State and this season he will be coaching at Florida. One set of rules for millionaire coaches, another set for players who graduate early and want to transfer, believing as Americans they are free to move about the country as they wish.

Dennis Dodd, a national college football writer at cbssports.com, reported that in a letter Alabama not only blocked Kennedy from contacting any SEC school about a transfer, but seven future nonconference opponents including The Citadel, which is an FCS program.

Really, Nick? You’re afraid Brandon Kennedy might make a pancake block in the second half of this year’s Nov. 17 game vs. The Citadel that Alabama is winning by 40 points?

The good news is that, much like baseball’s archaic rules, the current NCAA transfer rule may be on the verge of extinction. The Division I Transfer Working Group is expected to recommend in the next few weeks that the rule be changed so that instead of players needing permission from their current school, they need only notify the school of their intent to transfer provided they meet the necessary academic requirements.

The SEC’s rule that allows blocking transfers within the conference is a separate problem, but the broader rule change would be a huge stride forward in changing the environment. And not all SEC coaches are as hard-line on the matter as Saban. Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M has said of players in situations like Kennedy’s, “They graduated. They ought to be able to (transfer).”

Saban’s fear is that Kennedy will take with him Alabama’s playbook and any secrets that might reflect poorly on the program. So that’s why changing the SEC’s in-house rules will be tougher; Saban is not alone in his paranoia. Plus, as Dodd pointed out, under a new transfer rule Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts could make a quick exit to a program outside the league if he loses the QB competition with Tua Tagovailoa.

Saban would prefer to have the insurance of Hurts as a back-up. And apparently he wants control of his back-up center, too.

He wants it all … just like Bear Bryant 50 years ago.

Don Wade’s column appears in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.

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