When Haley Lee transferred from Texas A&M to Oklahoma last summer, she called it her "one opportunity" to seize everything she ever wanted in softball.
"Look, if you had ONE shot or ONE opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted, in one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip?" she wrote.
After four years in College Station, the catcher who set the program's single-season home run record was leaving the very place that gave her her start. She left two months after longtime Texas A&M head coach Jo Evans didn't have her contract renewed in May 2022.
Lee, of course, picked a powerhouse to take her talents to. She was one of four star transfers reeled in by Sooners head coach Patty Gasso prior to the 2023 season.
She's emblematic of what some softball players are saying is a larger issue in college softball. Players are transferring left and right — and in the Name, Image, and Likeness licensing era, the only schools benefiting from it are major programs such as Oklahoma.
Considering that the final two teams standing in the Women's College World Series — Florida State and Oklahoma — have a number of transfers on the roster, softball could be heading down a path with far less parity. It's something that many think isn't ultimately good for the game.
Let's Talk About Oklahoma's Transfers
Oklahoma's lineup is littered with transfers. It's why the team is reminiscent of the Murderers' Row New York Yankees lineups of the late 1920s. There are zero easy outs.
There's Lee, the catcher who entered Oklahoma City hitting .399 with 14 home runs. There's Alyssa Brito, the third baseman Oregon transfer who's hitting .400 and leading the team with 17 home runs. At first base is Cydney Sanders, the 2022 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year who transferred last year after hitting .425 with 21 home run at Arizona State. She came to Norman alongside the 2022 All-Pac-12 First Team's Alynah Torres, who also transferred from the Sun Devils and has hit .346 with the Sooners this year. Sanders and Torres departed after ASU head coach Trisha Ford took the Texas A&M job.
That's just the offense. Oklahoma also added one of the best pitchers in the country when Alex Storako left Michigan last year. In four seasons in Ann Arbor, Storako struck out 901 batters, won 69 games and had a 1.71 ERA in 563.2 innings. She's 16-0 with a 1.11 ERA for Oklahoma this season and is comically the team's No. 3 starter behind Nicole May and Jordy Bahl.
So, why are some of the sport's best players transferring to Oklahoma? As the saying goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Oklahoma is the center of the softball universe right now. Playing for the Sooners is a guarantee to play for a national championship. Only the best of the best can crack the roster.
But there's another element to all of this: NIL.
Is NIL is Keeping the Oklahoma Dynasty Running?
Name, Image, Likeness rules have created a totally different beast in college softball. Because playing for the Sooners means more exposure, that also likely means more money for athletes there.
Tiare Jennings, one of the best hitters in softball history, signed a deal last October with the group 1Oklahoma. The nonprofit NIL collective is leveraging NIL rules to reportedly pay softball athletes between "$40,000-50,000 a year." And that's not to mention Jennings' other deals with The Players Lounge, Breaking T, Rapsodo Softball, Icons of Oklahoma and others, according to On3.
Why wouldn't Lee, Brito or Storako want to do the same? It's simply a smart business decision, especially given that professional softball salaries aren't known to be high.
Even Texas head coach Mike White had to catch himself during an interview in March about Oklahoma's ability to reload talent, especially after losing the sport's greatest power hitter, Jocelyn Alo.
"They find ways to keep reloading, and I'm not quite sure all of it is — you know, whatever, I won't say any more," White said, stopping himself mid-interview, via KVUE's Tyler Feldman.
Texas lost to Oklahoma in last year's WCWS Finals and lost to Tennessee at the Knoxville super regional this year. White's comments seemed to imply that some shady business was going on at Oklahoma, but one can't be sure.
Regardless, many important voices in the softball community don't like where the game is going.
Former Softball Players Are Worried About the Sport
I hope some athletes choose to stay with the teams they committed to for 4 years. Tough for the sport if everyone transfers after one good year.
— Sierra Joy Romero (@Sierrajoy32) June 5, 2023
Imagine the legacy you could leave if you help grow a program, imagine the leadership and life skills that teaches you, imagine how cool it is to be apart of something bigger than you.
— Sierra Joy Romero (@Sierrajoy32) June 5, 2023
One of those is former Michigan legend and four-time All-American Sierra Romero, who said it was "tough for the sport if everyone transfers after one good year."
Even former Michigan head coach Carol Hutchins, who retired in 2022, seems to approve of that notion.
Spoken like a Michigan Woman! Those who stay?.. https://t.co/AaB8PGaAKb
— Carol Hutchins (@UMCoachHutch) June 5, 2023
Meanwhile, Romero's sister, Sydney Romero, a former All-American at Oklahoma, has a different take.
People hate on OU Softball.
We talk about breaking barriers, & supporting women sports. Yet, seeing people hate on this program is kind of crazy. But not surprised? Seems to me as if people are bitter & hateful because they just?haven?t? been there like OU has ? JUST BE BETTER
— Sydney Joy Romero OLY (@syd_syd2) June 6, 2023
And one current player, Bri Ellis, argued she intends on transferring from Auburn to "take my future into my own hands." She hit 34 home runs over the last two seasons for the Tigers.
So grateful for the opportunity to take my future into my own hands and start over somewhere that is right for me. Women haven?t always been able to have this kind of voice and authority over their own life, and most still don?t. I am thankful that the transfer ->
— Bri Ellis (@briellis1) June 6, 2023
The bottom line here is that the transfer portal can be a terrific tool for players to seek other options when they're not given opportunities or are unhappy at their current schools. That's not what's happening at places such as Oklahoma, though. The best of the best are taking their talents to Norman, and it's creating an imbalance of talent.
Heck, Storako transferred in part because she was playing too much. That's a fair reason, though, to be quite honest.
"Previously, I was throwing three games in a weekend," Storako told reporters in February, "so being able to throw a little bit less is really exciting for my physical health and my arm as a whole."
College softball has a ton of momentum right now, and the ratings are clear evidence of that. But you know what doesn't make for good TV? Bad competition. Nobody wants to watch Oklahoma beat the brakes off of everyone. I mean, imagine if Stanford wunderkind NiJaree Canady transferred to Oklahoma after the remarkable showing she had at the WCWS. That's bad for the sport.
Oklahoma, of course, isn't the only school to use the transfer portal. But the Sooners often get the brunt of the hate because they're the best team in the country, a machine that constantly churns out championships and All-Americans.
At this year's WCWS, every team except Stanford — which has a remarkable zero transfers — has multiple transfers on the roster. Oklahoma State led the way with eight, while Florida State and Utah followed with six each. Tennessee had five, two of which were plucked from Oklahoma: Zaida Puni and Mackenzie Donihoo.
Seeing all these names from the portal?..Players of the year, All-Americans, name after name.
I?m sad for our sport and our coaches that initially recruit these wonderful athletes. How are coaching staffs supposed to build a program & take their teams to new levels anymore?
— Kaitlyn Strelow (@KatieRich26) June 5, 2023
Was Oklahoma winning before the NIL era? Absolutely. Gasso has built a something special in Norman that has captured national attention, something that has been good for the sport. But the NIL era is absolutely contributing to the team's success at this point, too.
You know how Alabama football at one point was the team we all wanted to see lose because we were sick of seeing them win? That's how it's beginning to feel with Oklahoma.
And considering that more than 200 college softball players entered the transfer portal in May, things aren't going to change anytime soon. Get used to seeing Oklahoma at the top for a very long time.
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