BIRMINGHAM — Student-athlete transfers have taken a journey to where no college student have gone before in recent years: The NCAA portal and beyond.

“We’ve sent a number of people back to the dictionary to figure out what the word portal actually means from the early Star Trek days,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said with a smirk on Monday.

That was the only joke from Sankey about an otherwise serious subject facing college athletics.

Graduate transfers have become more prominent in recent years with fewer restrictions. The NCAA’s transfer portal allows student-athletes to be openly recruited by other schools while leaving the door open for them to return to their team. Some coaches have told Sankey they’re still adjusting to the new rules.

“What I’ve not heard is ‘We’re not doing the right thing,’” Sankey said. “I have heard ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ Some coaches have said, being very honest with me ‘I’ve stayed out of this activity, particularly with grad transfers. I’ve stayed out of this. But if this is the new way things will be going forward, then I’m going to be active.’”

Alabama has gained and lost players from any number of sports through these new avenues. Quarterback Jalen Hurts left as a graduate transfer and took visits to multiple campuses after putting his name in the transfer portal. Alabama basketball recently added graduate transfer point guard Beetle Bolden.

Some of the changes have caused even bigger shifts elsewhere. The NCAA recently granted hardship waivers to quarterbacks Justin Fields and Tate Martell as they transferred to Ohio State and Miami, respectively. They’re eligible immediately as underclassmen without having to sit out a season. It was suggested to Sankey that waivers for immediate eligibility seem to be much more likely to be granted now.

“That’s a bit of an understatement there,” he said. “I think that creates difficulties for everyone involved.”

The NCAA passed a rule allowing players to redshirt while playing up to four football games in a season; Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant played in four games and chose to transfer to Missouri rather than finish his final season of eligibility.

“Two years ago, our football coaches talked about this hardship waiver where you play four games and don’t use a year of eligibility,” Sankey said. “It was my first year as commissioner, and I said ‘Let’s wait and sponsor it as a conference and see what happens nationally.’ Because I thought that we put our name to it, that would generate some opposition right away and generate some questions. We didn’t have a whole lot of data other than anecdotally, this could work.”

Bryant is now one of the anecdotes that will be used to examine the effects of that rule. Other questions still remain: Sankey wants to know whether transfer students are staying eligible and whether they’re graduating at a rate that benefits them.

Those are all parts of what Sankey called an “ongoing topic of dialogue” which could continue at the conference’s meetings in Destin in May, though there don’t seem to be any new proposals on the table at the moment.

That dialogue includes questions from coaches as they seek out more answers about the new world of transfers. Whatever and whoever comes out of the portal could wind up helping SEC programs in the meantime.

“Candidly, I think our programs will be the beneficiaries for those (athletes) who want to explore going to play at the highest level,” Sankey said.

Reach Ben Jones at ben@tidesports.com or 205-722-0196.

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