Welcome to the portal — where college athletes can risk it all for a shot at glory
The cost of tuition and fees for full-time students at Stanford University is just north of $56,000 a year, and the prestigious college accepts fewer than 4% of applicants.
So when Myles Hinton, a native of Johns Creek, Ga., was accepted on a full scholarship in 2019, the moment wasn't lost on him.
And yet, Stanford wasn't good enough, in his estimation. Not when it came to football.
"I'm not going to lie to you, because, like, I love my coaches, I love the team, love my teammates — there wasn't any qualms with the athletic facility," he said.
What bothered him was that he felt the student body didn't show up for the football team and that this lack of energy drained the Stanford Cardinal of its home-field advantages.
It made Hinton feel like he wasn't getting "a real college football experience," especially coming from Georgia, where college football doesn't take a back seat to anything. And perhaps most importantly, he couldn't see a path to going pro.
So last December, Hinton made the decision to leave.
He was going to risk it all by entering the college transfer portal in the hope of landing at another school that might better propel him into the big time.
Since the inception of the transfer portal in 2018, the number of student athletes seeking to move colleges with the intent of finding a better path to the pros has exploded.
It started with a highly touted few. But now tens of thousands of students are joining the portal, and many are risking hard-earned scholarships and their place in college to do so.
A leap of faith
The NCAA's transfer portal policy has transformed the landscape for student athletes seeking greener pastures.
It works like this: Student athletes can now enter the portal and ask to change colleges. When they do that, their school has the right to rescind or reduce their scholarship, even if they don't leave.
It's the ultimate leap of faith, and not everyone sticks the landing.
NCAA statistics show that between August 2021 and July 2022, more than 20,900 Division I student athletes entered the transfer portal.
Of those, about 12,000 found a home at another college. Yet the fates of the more than 9,000 others vary and can include everything from dropping out of college to still being active in the portal and hoping to find a new home.
And the numbers are building. The 20,900 student athletes in 2021-2022 was up from 18,000 the previous year.
It's a rapid disruption from the pre-portal era, when student athletes were typically locked into their school unless they transferred and agreed to sit out a year of eligibility in their sport.
Hinton, an offensive lineman with 16 starts under his belt over three years at Stanford, didn't make his decision to leave on a whim. There's a strategy playing out here.
"In order to take the next step of my game, I had to, you know, get into a new environment, get a little uncomfortable, you know, just to be able to grow," he said.
"Because after a while of being in the same spot, I feel like sometimes you can get to a point of homeostasis where you feel like you're kind of just chilling."
The highly coveted degree from Stanford, as well as the scholarship, wasn't lost on Hinton and his family.
His mother and father, both former student athletes, knew the value of an education and the doors that would open if he graduated from a good college.
"I put a lot of time and thinking into it because, of course, I don't want to give up my Stanford degree, you know, because it's, like, a Stanford degree," Hinton said.
He prayed on this decision and consulted with his family. Then, in mid-December, he got the good news: His transfer was successful. He committed to the University of Michigan on a scholarship and joined the Big Ten Conference.
Hinton believed he'd arrived at the big leagues, and his elation for a fresh start was palpable.
"Man, it's Big Ten ball, you know? It's Big Ten ball. It's a whole different ballgame," Hinton said.
"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 here [in Michigan] — you know what I'm saying? So I kind of just grew up watching the sport through a Big Ten lens."
He'd also seen the pathway to the pros play out before his eyes. His older brother, Chris Hinton Jr., played three years at Michigan before getting the call up to the NFL.
Standing at an imposing 6 feet, 7 inches, and 320 pounds, Hinton is a good fit for a Michigan Wolverines team that is coming off an already successful run where the team made it to the College Football Playoff for two consecutive years.
So far, so good.
Another enticing draw card
At the same time as the portal draws students into its orbit, the introduction of the NCAA's name, image and likeness (NIL) policy in 2021 — which, for the first time, allowed athletes to accept money for promotional activities — has added another enticement.
Whole NIL collectives have sprung up, where multiple alumni, university booster club members and other benefactors with deep pockets pool their money to entice a student athlete to join the transfer portal and play at their college.
It has spurred players to change schools for contracts worth obscene amounts of money. One athlete this year signed an NIL collective contract for what's believed to be a record $8 million.
Critics say this was never the intention of the NIL. Others say the NCAA's ambivalence to increasing student athlete stipends to reflect the wealth generated from their labor ushered college sports down this alley.
Amid the unease, suggestions for NIL reform range from an assist from Congress through legislation, to creating verifiable NIL-approved entities.
But solutions to keeping student athletes from risking their scholarships through the transfer portal, in search of an NIL payday or for a shot at going pro, aren't so simple.
And with a surge in stories about lucrative NIL contracts coming to light, student athletes now find their passion for sports questioned by everyone from a school's fan base to, sometimes, coaches.
That's what Byron Vaughns experienced recently.
Vaughns is one of the thousands of student athletes who entered the transfer portal last December, opting to leave Utah State University.
"When I entered the portal, a lot of people, a lot of fans would come and tag my page and say, 'He's leaving because of NIL.' But at the end of the day, I have bigger goals than a few thousand dollars that I can make in college. I'm trying to make it to the next level," he said.
Yet four months after entering the portal, Vaughns was still waiting.
"It can definitely take a toll on your mental health and your family," he said. "There were days my dad would wake up, my mom would wake up and we would all just look at each other and say, 'It's going to be OK.'"
Vaughns' path to this point had already been winding and challenging. He had spent three years at the University of Texas. In 2018, he was redshirted and didn't play. He played 10 games in 2019 and then in 2020 didn't play a game.
So Vaughns went from the University of Texas at Austin, a place with cachet and resources to spare, to Utah State, a school from the smaller Mountain West athletic conference that offered him a chance to stand out.
Vaughns' hunger showed up on the football field almost immediately. He amassed nearly 100 tackles over the span of his two seasons with Utah State and was embraced by the local Aggies fan base.
But still something wasn't sitting right with Vaughns, and he had plans to use his last year of eligibility on a bigger stage. So he went back to the portal in search of a third school.
"I hit the portal because I feel like there's better competition week in and week out [elsewhere], and who doesn't like those prime-time games Saturday night, you know?"
While Vaughns attempted to use the portal to his advantage, those who join it still remain the outliers. Most student athletes — including those who go pro — stay at the same school, and the portal is not an ensured fast track to success.
Vaughns said that in the months after seeking a transfer, he had conversations with a few coaches from interested schools. But he also heard rumors that coaches may sometimes do what they can to slow down talented players from entering the transfer portal.
NPR hasn't seen any documented evidence of this happening, but the fear persists among some student athletes as they weigh their choices.
"Some people had a harder time leaving their universities because coaches wouldn't sign off on their paperwork," Vaughns said of the stories that circulate.
"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 and what coaches say to other coaches about you during the recruitment process."
The view from the athletic department
Coaches aren't immune from the pressure of the transfer portal either. Some see it as a lifeblood for their teams.
Kansas State University's athletic director, Gene Taylor, says his men's basketball coach, Jerome Tang, was drawing heavily from it.
"The transfer portal can be very, very good. There's a lot of good things about it," Taylor said. "Tang only had two players when he got here and was able to fill the roster with transfers."
"The majority of the impact of the team, including our point guard ... were transfers."
The 2022-2023 season was more than kind to Kansas State as its men's basketball team reached the Elite Eight during the NCAA Tournament, while the football team received an invitation to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, helping to bring in more than $70 million to the Big 12, the conference that Kansas State calls home.
The combination of the NIL and the strong culture and values at Kansas State means that both dynamic players and perennial underdogs can now be compensated for their value.
Everyone can get a bit of the capital flowing across college sports.
Others in the college system — like Steven Napolillo, the athletic director at Providence College — know the value of the coaches too.
"The pressure you feel as an athletic director is you have, or I have, 185 full-time employees. I have 375 student athletes. And every decision you make, you want to try to do your best by them," Napolillo said.
His discernment for hiring coaches is also paramount. They can both draw players to a team and maybe entice them to stay.
"You go through stressful situations when you have to hire a coach who's going to impact the future of Providence College and help transform lives," Napolillo said.
"So I think that's the challenge that you have — you're trying to make sure to do your due diligence, that you're bringing in the right person for the position, but, you know, there's no playbook for it."
The next portal chapter
Last month, Vaughns announced that he'd found a new home at last. He is going back to Texas, this time to Baylor University.
He's elated to spend his last year of eligibility playing for a hungry Baylor Bears team that's one season removed from a Sugar Bowl win, and he thinks he can make a difference.
Thousands of others are hoping the same is true for them.
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