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Student athletes' hope for a new beginning closes as transfer portal deadline nears

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Now to college sports - in particular, the transfer portal. For decades, high school athletes entered college, and the door basically shut behind them. The NCAA changed that in 2018 by creating the transfer portal. It allows players to trade up and schools to reconfigure teams. NPR's Jason Fuller reports.

JASON FULLER, BYLINE: High school football is on another level in Texas. Loads of teens play before thousands of fans each week. Byron Vaughns grew up in Fort Worth and played for Eastern Hills High. He was all set to play for the University of Texas.

BYRON VAUGHNS: Who doesn't like those primetime games Saturday night, you know?

FULLER: Except things didn't quite go as planned. Vaughn spent 2018 as a redshirt. In 2019, he played in 10 games, but in 2020, Vaughns, along with thousands of other student athletes, didn't play at all due to the pandemic. The NCAA took notice and gave student athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the lost COVID-19 season. Vaughns took advantage, hoping he'd create more impressive on-the-field numbers at a smaller school. He left the Texas Longhorns for the Utah State Aggies, and it worked. He had 99 tackles during the 2021 and 2022 seasons. Vaughns was embraced by the Aggie fan base, but he thought his playing could be pushed.

VAUGHNS: I love Utah State, but another reason I left is because during the offseason, I was actually working a construction job just to, you know, take care of my bills.

FULLER: This is where college sports' second new wrinkle enters the frame - NIL, name, image and likeness - that offers a way for college athletes to make money.

VAUGHNS: When I entered the portal, a lot of people - a lot of fans, you know, would come and tag my page and say, he's leaving because NIL, but at the end of the day, like, I have bigger goals than a few thousand dollars that I can make in college. Like, I'm trying to make it to the next level.

FULLER: But what fans didn't see was the emotional toll gripping his family as he waited for a new opportunity in the transfer portal for months.

VAUGHNS: There was days my dad would wake up, my mom would wake up, and we just got to all look at each other like, it's going to be OK.

FULLER: But everyone who enters doesn't find a new school. Between August 1, 2021, and July 31, 2022, the NCAA says almost 21,000 student athletes entered the transfer portal from Division I schools, but more than 40% found themselves, like Vaughns, waiting. Players are competing not just for spots, but for a shrinking number of scholarships, and Vaughn says sometimes coaching staffs drag their feet.

VAUGHNS: If you're a big-time player, a coach doesn't want you to leave, so you have to deal with the obstacle of what a coach has to say about you, what a coach can say to other coaches during the recruitment process.

FULLER: Gene Taylor, athletic director at Kansas State University, says his school has benefited from the transfer portal.

GENE TAYLOR: It's been a very successful year across the board, both athletically and academically.

FULLER: Taylor not only touts his athletes' 3.2 GPA, but the school made big waves in multiple sports this year. The men's golf team made it to the regionals. The Wildcats football team helped bring in more than $70 million with their Sugar Bowl berth, and the men's college basketball team relied heavily on the transfer portal.

TAYLOR: Last year, we brought in coach Jerome Tang as our new basketball coach. By the time he got here and evaluated his players, he ended up with just two players to start a squad with.

FULLER: Instead of having to build his team with a bunch of freshmen, Coach Tang's team made a deep run into the men's NCAA March Madness tournament - all the way to the Elite Eight - with seasoned transfer players.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN ANDERSON: Count the basket, and Kansas State wins it.

(CHEERING)

FULLER: Myles Hinton, who grew up just outside of Atlanta, had an unusually easy transfer experience.

MYLES HINTON: Yeah, I put a lot of time, a lot of thinking into it 'cause of course, like, I don't want to give up my Stanford degree, you know? 'Cause that's, like, you know, a Stanford degree.

FULLER: Hinton, who stands at an imposing 6-foot-7, 320 pounds was a highly sought-after high school recruit, but the low fan turnout at Stanford games was disappointing. This is not what Hinton envisioned playing college ball would be like. So he entered the transfer portal and quickly landed at the University of Michigan.

HINTON: Man, it's just Big Ten ball. You know, it's Big Ten ball. It's a whole different ball game. I grew up watching Big Ten ball because my dad played in the Big Ten. My mom played basketball for a Big Ten team. My brother played it here, you know what I'm saying? So I just kind of grew up watching the sport through a Big Ten kind of lens.

FULLER: But what about Byron Vaughns still waiting to hear back in Utah? Well, just days before having to compete in the May transfer portal, Vaughns took to Twitter saying - I'm blessed to say I'll be back playing my last season back home in Texas; I'm a Baylor Bear, baby. Jason Fuller, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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