Until recently, the arrival of a transfer the caliber of quarterback Justin Fields would be considered good news for future seasons, not the upcoming one.
According to NCAA rules, a transfer must sit out a year before competing for his new college team. Yet Fields’ attorney and experts interviewed by The Dispatch believe it is likely though not certain that the NCAA will permit him to play for Ohio State this fall.
Fields, the No. 2-ranked recruit in the 2018 recruiting class, transferred from Georgia and began classes Monday at Ohio State.Join the conversation at Facebook.com/BuckeyeXtra and connect with us on Twitter @BuckeyeXtra
Part of the reason for the optimism about Fields being ruled eligible for 2019 is that the NCAA has become increasingly lenient in granting such waivers. It issued one last year to quarterback Shea Patterson, who transferred from scandal-plagued Mississippi to Michigan.
Tom Mars, the attorney who represented Patterson and more than 30 college athletes in the last six months, is doing the same for Fields in conjunction with Ohio State’s athletic department.
Outside speculation about a rationale for Fields’ case that would pass NCAA muster centers on an incident at the Sept. 29 Georgia-Tennessee game in which a Georgia baseball player, Adam Sasser, repeatedly yelled a racial slur invoking Fields.
“I’m very confident that the NCAA will grant Justin a waiver so he can play next season, but not just for the reasons people have speculated about on social media,” Mars said in a statement to The Dispatch. “There’s more to it than that.”
Mars did not elaborate on potential other factors.
“Most waiver requests are far more complex and nuanced than most college sports fans realize,” he said. “If the NCAA waiver process were as simple and straightforward as many of the social media comments suggest, student-athletes and their parents wouldn’t need lawyers to advise them and help them through the process.”
It is unclear if Fields heard the slur, but the story got significant media attention. Sasser was dismissed from the team, and the university condemned his actions.
Experts believe the slurs could be classified as something that “directly impact(s) the health, safety and well-being of the student-athlete” or constitutes “egregious behavior” against Fields. That is part of NCAA language adopted last June to justify the potential waiving of the one-year wait for transfers.
“I think it (Fields’ waiver request) will be approved, especially if there’s more information there,” said Tim Nevius, a former investigator for the NCAA who now represents clients in cases against the organization. “They’re going to recognize it’s not something they want to endorse as appropriate behavior and that people should not be subject to that type of environment and should be able to transfer.”
Fields remained on the team the rest of the season, even after he put his name in the NCAA transfer portal. Skeptics will say that he transferred primarily because he was unable to unseat incumbent quarterback Jake Fromm.
“The reality of the matter is it’s not very easy for a student-athlete to walk away midseason,” said attorney Don Jackson, who has represented clients in cases against the NCAA for 28 years. “Whether he heard (the slurs) or not doesn’t take away from the fact that the comments were made and directed at him.
“If the waiver is not granted, it would really almost be a tacit acceptance of inappropriate conduct and an imposition of punishment against this student-athlete for removing himself from that kind of environment.”
The case likely won’t be resolved soon. Jackson said he expects it to take “several weeks” at a minimum. Ohio State will formulate its case. Georgia then will have 10 business days to decide whether to support the waiver request or argue against it.
If the NCAA rules against Fields, it will then go to an NCAA appeals subcommittee, which has a reputation for being more liberal in granting waivers. So while Fields’ battle to become Ohio State’s quarterback will be fought on the field against Tate Martell and Matthew Baldwin, it also will be contested in a venue largely out of his control.