Leading up to the 2018 college football season, quarterback prospect Justin Fields made waves when he declared his intention to sign with the University of Georgia. According to recruiting experts, Fields was a clear top dual-threat quarterback ranked either first or second in all “Big Board” rankings of recruits, occasionally coming in second only to the now reigning national champion quarterback, Trevor Lawrence.
Becoming a Georgia Bulldog presented plenty of enticing opportunities for Fields—not only would he have a legitimate opportunity to contend for the starting job against incumbent Bulldog quarterback Jake Fromm, Fields would also have the unique prospect of competing both for a national championship and on the baseball diamond. More than just a sterling talent on the gridiron with exceptional ability, Fields was also considered a potential high-round Major League Baseball (MLB) draft choice while in high school. According to an MLB scout in 2017, Fields was in a “[s]imilar situation as Jameis Winston when he was in high school. He’s a better overall athlete and runner for sure, but [Fields’s] baseball skills are behind due to all the time he gives to football.” The baseball acumen apparently runs in the family, as Fields’s sister later enrolled at Georgia to play softball.
A Georgia native, Fields ultimately found the prospect of becoming a Bulldog too enticing to refuse. Unfortunately, whether due to his own performance, the coaching regimen, or a combination of the two, Fields drastically underwhelmed during the 2018 college football season. Throughout the season, Fields completed just 27 of 39 passes for 329 yards, with 4 touchdowns and no interceptions. Further, Fields rushed for 266 yards, with 4 touchdowns, on 42 carries. Whether at the whim of head coach Kirby Smart or offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, Fields was largely used in “mop-up duty,” only coming into games in select packages or once a win was all but guaranteed.
Indeed, Fields’s frustration with his role was evident early on in the 2018 season. For example, in an expletive-driven tirade delivered while walking off the field at the conclusion of a week-2 41–17 victory over rival South Carolina, Fields complained that he simply handed the ball off in the game and contributed next to nothing in Georgia’s victory. Indeed, during the biggest games of the season, Fields seemed to falter or simply disappear; for example, Fields carried the ball once for three yards against Missouri, delivered the same line in a loss to LSU, saw no game time against Florida, and had one ill-fated fake punt attempt in the Southeastern Conference Championship loss to Alabama.
To add insult to injury, Fields’s performance on the field ultimately paled in comparison with a controversy that occurred off the field. During a home game against Tennessee, Georgia first baseman Adam Sasser reportedly shouted racial slurs aimed at Fields. While under investigation, Sasser ultimately admitted to the comments, apologizing publicly and noting that he and Fields have since made amends. Regardless, Georgia promptly dismissed Sasser from the university.
At the end of this tumultuous year, rumors quickly swirled that Fields intended to transfer from the University of Georgia—there were reports that Fields supposedly had interest in transferring to Florida State, Oklahoma, Penn State, or Ohio State. Within weeks, these rumors came to fruition: Fields announced his intention to transfer to the Ohio State University in advance of the 2019 season. Of course, this created a new narrative for everyone to ponder—would Fields be eligible to play quarterback at Ohio State in 2019, or would he be required to sit out the 2019 season?
On February 8, 2019, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rendered its final decision—Fields obtained his waiver and would be eligible to lead the Buckeyes out onto the field in the 2019 season. This came as no surprise based on the recent history of waiver requests; however, the facts particular to Fields’s situation provide additional insight into the new NCAA Transfer Guidelines and the growing trend of abolishing the “one-year” rule altogether.
Current NCAA Transfer Guidelines
The NCAA Transfer Guidelines state that “[t]he NCAA Division I Committee for Legislative Relief, formerly the NCAA Division I Management Council Administrative Review Committee was created in 1993 as a response to the membership’s desire for more rules flexibility.” In essence, this committee reviews the application of NCAA legislation on a case-by-case basis to determine whether a waiver is needed due to extraordinary circumstances.
Back in April 2018, and pursuant to bylaw 14.5, “the NCAA Division I Council approved an amendment to the NCAA Division I Committee for Legislative Relief polices [sic] to specify that immediate eligibility may be provided in certain situation.” To procure a grant of these waivers, the institution needs to establish that the transfer is as a result of “documented mitigating circumstances outside of the student-athlete’s control and directly impacts the health, safety or well-being of the student-athlete” (emphasis added). The transferring student’s overall academic record and any opposition by the previous institution will also be considered.
Bylaw 14.5 continues to provide sections outlining the most common assertions submitted as mitigating circumstances for these requests. In pertinent part, these are as follows:
1. Assertions of Egregious Behavior.
During its February 2016 meeting, the committee reviewed waivers involving assertions of egregious behavior by a staff member or a student at the previous institution and determined that immediate eligibility is appropriate.
The committee approved the following guidelines regarding assertions of egregious behavior:
a. In cases where the student-athlete was a victim of objective, documented egregious behavior by a staff member or student at the previous institution and the previous institution does not oppose the waiver, staff may grant immediate eligibility.
b. In cases where the applicant institution cannot document that the student-athlete was the victim of egregious behavior by a staff member or a student at the previous institution or the previous institution does not oppose the waiver, staff should review on a case-by-case basis.
Evolution and Application of Reformed Transfer Guidelines
Prior to the monumental changes made to the transfer guidelines, a transferring student would need to demonstrate that his or her previous institution exhibited extremely egregious behavior in order to warrant immediate eligibility. Without such a showing, NCAA officials were restricted to simply granting an additional year of eligibility added onto the end of an athlete’s college career. Dave Schnase, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs, elaborated on the monumental changes made to the transfer guidelines:
“The membership wanted to put immediate eligibility back on the table. And so whether that resulted in a high approval rate, I don’t think membership knew. They just wanted to put that back on the table. And then the circumstances of each individual case would essentially dictate the approval rate.”
Ultimately, establishing immediate eligibility for all transfer requests was considered and discussed, but the changes stopped just short of dismissing the gatekeeper and opening up the floodgates in their entirety. Since this drastic change, 63 college football players have requested waivers to play immediately and the NCAA has granted 50, a rate of 79 percent. Notably, the NCAA and various schools do not publicly explain their waiver decisions, citing student privacy laws as the alleged reason for their silence. Nonetheless, a few high-profile waivers granted over the span of the past year serve as examples and can be used to construct a narrative regarding what kinds of transfers are entitled to immediate eligibility.
Shea Patterson: University of Mississippi to University of Michigan. Quarterback Shea Patterson serves as the first well-known case of a granted waiver request pursuant to the reformed transfer guidelines. Following a 2017 recruiting scandal and subsequent sanctions brought down on Mississippi, the NCAA permitted rising Mississippi seniors to transfer in lieu of the rule typically requiring them to sit out for one year upon transferring. Patterson, along with several other Ole Miss teammates, wanted to transfer and, in doing so, requested the same treatment—waiver of the one-year rule. In rationalizing their requests, Patterson, along with several other Ole Miss teammates, argued that Ole Miss coaches and staff misled them during the recruiting process regarding the ongoing NCAA investigation—at the time, Ole Miss staunchly denied any wrongdoing.
Michigan, where Patterson intended to transfer, made his initial waiver application before the 2018 amendments were made to the transfer guidelines. As a result, Michigan actually withdrew its application in favor of this new cooperation-based approach. Upon approval of the amendment, Mississippi, Michigan, and the NCAA national office staff worked concertedly in an effort to craft a new waiver application—one that was predictably approved.
Given Patterson’s transfer route under the new transfer guidelines, a new road map presented itself for players and schools alike. Simply put, as long as the student requesting a transfer bases the appeal on something happening out of his or her control—which was detrimental to his or her health, safety, and well-being—and can demonstrate sufficient academic progress, and as long as the prior school had no objection, it appeared that the NCAA would grant immediate eligibility.
Demetris Robertson: University of California to University of Georgia. In the summer of 2018, former five-star wide receiver Demetris Robertson decided to leave California after two years. On its face, it appeared to be a typical hardship waiver request—Robertson’s home state was Georgia, and according to his older brother, a handful of family health scares arose over the previous seasons that made it difficult for him to focus on academics and his college football career from across the nation.
Typically, the NCAA had handled such requests as being similar to a medical redshirt, permitting an extra year of eligibility on the end of a college career as opposed to immediate eligibility. In theory, this methodology was intended to actually benefit the transferring player—whether dealing with a medical issue, family situation, or something in the same vein, the NCAA typically gave these students a year to settle in and work on the reason they felt the need to transfer in the first place. However, given the shift in direction with the transfer guidelines, Robertson found himself with the potential to have immediate eligibility at a school closer to home. Provided Robertson maintained sufficient academics and gave California no reason to dispute his desire to move closer to home, he was left with simply the “mitigating circumstances” hurdle to clear.
The NCAA ultimately granted Robertson’s waiver request. Because the NCAA does not elaborate on why a waiver is granted or denied, it remains a relative mystery as to what the determining factor was; while he likely could point to these health issues having a “homesick” effect on his day-to-day life, he had also been attending California for two years and had an older brother living close by, which cuts in the other direction. Accordingly, this gives credence to the narrative that the NCAA evinces leniency in its final decision, especially given situations where the transfer is cordial between the two schools involved.
Fields’s Waiver Approval
Based on the recent transfer precedent, it comes as no surprise that the NCAA ultimately granted Fields his waiver; perhaps coming as even less of a surprise, it gave no reasoning for its decision. If history is any indication, the stars seemed to align for Fields from the get-go; first, the inference may be made that Fields met any and all academic requirements. The crux of the issue, then, turned on whether Fields suffered from “documented mitigating circumstances outside of [Fields]’s control and [whether it] directly impacts the health, safety or well-being of [Fields]” pursuant to the new NCAA guidelines. This is where perennial NCAA transfer expert Tom Mars clearly came into play—according to Mars, “[u]nlike the situation with the Ole Miss transfers, the process of obtaining a waiver for Justin isn’t going to drag on for months.” Specifically, Mars added that he believes a decision by the NCAA would be made by February. While perhaps a week off his initial target, the expedited granting of the waiver shows a drastic decrease in the NCAA’s decision-making process when compared with previous cases.
Likening the Fields saga to the Shea Patterson and Demetris Robertson stories, it almost becomes more of a question of why wouldn’t the NCAA grant Fields’s request. The Patterson transfer was monumental, setting the stage for warranted transfers under the new guidelines as a result of actions outside the student-athlete’s control. Even more telling, then, are the case studies that followed.
One notable difference is that, unlike Robertson, Fields actually wanted to move away from his family—a native of Kennesaw, Georgia, his family presumably still lives in the state, with his sister playing softball for the very university from which he wished to depart. However, tilting the scales back in favor of Fields’s waiver, Robertson and Williams also never dealt with anything remotely similar to the Adam Sasser incident—at least to the public’s knowledge. Especially when considering Fields’s talent and potential to play baseball at a high level for Georgia, the Sasser fiasco proves immense in warranting Fields’s desire to leave for cause.
With the education and “documented mitigating circumstances” boxes presumably checked off, the inquiry finally turned to whether the University of Georgia would push back against the transfer. This is where the process could have sunk deeper into the swamp—with Fromm being a rising junior and thusly eligible to depart for the National Football League (NFL) after the 2019 season, the last thing Georgia would want is to have the top quarterback remaining on the depth chart transfer and potentially play against Georgia in the future playoffs. However, given the circumstances, the Bulldogs would have been hard-pressed to push back against Fields’s request—after all, in the wake of Adam Sasser’s incendiary racist comments directed at Fields, the public outrage against Georgia fighting Fields’s request would have been astronomical.
At the end of the day, the fact that Ohio State was willing to bring in Fields and file the waiver request essentially scripted how the story would unfold. Newly implemented head coach Ryan Day has seen a revolving door as the entryway to his quarterback room—starting quarterback Dwayne Haskins departed for the NFL, four-star quarterback recruit Dwan Mathis flipped from Ohio State to Georgia, and presumed starter Tate Martell vehemently denied any intention to transfer before changing course and taking his talents to Miami. For Day to be willing to bring in Fields knowing that it likely meant the end of Mathis’s and Martell’s tenure at the university, one has to imagine he always had the utmost confidence in Mars and the transfer process—as we now know, this confidence paid off in spades.
Dustin Osborne is an attorney at Goldberg Segalla in Buffalo, New York.
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