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Oklahoma Sooners Football: The topic of tampering in college football

To put it mildly, conference leaders are in an awkward position.

NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Tournament Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Much like the supposed prohibition against wearing headphones during the workday at one of my former places of employment, the NCAA has rules that aren’t really rules.

As the sport’s overseers have eased restrictions on transferring, ESPN’s Alex Scarborough has a new piece out on what college football coaches are characterizing as an explosion in one of the aforementioned not-rules, roster tampering. It comes as little surprise that players are even getting in on the act of recruiting their rivals, according to Scarborough’s reporting.

Fortunately, the stakes here seem pretty low for everyone not making a fortune from coaching. It’s not at all clear that tampering is a bad thing for players in the first place. The truth is that some players could make bad decisions about switching schools, but just as many may have their eyes opened to better opportunities after getting wooed by another program.

Yet, whining is what college football coaches do by their nature. And much like the legendary shenanigans that take place on the high school recruiting trail, you can bet that the futility of trying to deter tampering won’t stop jilted coaches from raising a ruckus when stars skip town. Therein lies a problem for college sports conferences.

For example, say a starting defensive tackle just got booted from Team X, leaving the best team in its conference perilously thin at the position. One of the better DTs in the conference, Player A, plays for Team Y, which is a member of the same conference as X.

Now imagine the defensive line coach for Team X gets word to Player A via backchannels that if he were to decide he wants to transfer... and if he were to pick X as his new school... a starting position would be there waiting for him. Given that X has a better team than Y, A hits the transfer portal and enrolls at X within weeks. Team Y contacts conference headquarters to register a complaint that X tampered with a player on the Y roster.

Consider the thorny conflict of interest this presents for the league office. On the one hand, it could launch a credible inquiry into the allegations and risk forcing itself into hamstring its best program. On the other, the conference brass could shrug off the complaint, which puts in play the possibility that Team Y may leak its complaints to the media or try to sic the NCAA on Team X. (X also could treat that decision by the conference as a license to pilfer players from other teams.)

Long story short: The conference office really doesn’t want to be in the position of adjudicating those kinds of disputes between its members. The rub is that the league also doesn’t want to involve the NCAA, either.

In the past, conferences have tried to avoid such situations by imposing draconian restrictions on intra-conference transfers. For instance, when Baker Mayfield transferred from the Texas Tech Red Raiders to the Oklahoma Sooners, he sat out the 2014 season and the OU brass still had to fight to ensure the former walk-on wouldn’t sacrifice a year of eligibility. The objective was to make transferring to another school in the conference unappealing to both the player and any potential suitors, thereby discouraging tampering.

Obviously, that won’t fly anymore. Direct restrictions on player movement is why we’re in this position now. So with that in mind, look for conferences to come up with subtler ways to deter transfers between their own members.

In fact, conferences can still get most of the way to discouraging roster tampering among their members by forcing schools to pay a higher price to accept an intra-conference transfer. Specifically, that could mean counting an intra-conference transfer as two or three scholarships against the team’s limit of 85. A program would really need the services of the player if he effectively took up two roster spots. If the demand for intra-conference transfers falls, so does the temptation to tamper among those schools.

So for the sake of conference harmony, I expect they will eventually adopt something along those lines.