By midday Monday, almost 250,000 people had signed the petition by Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields asking the Big Ten to reinstate the fall football season.
Tom Mars, the attorney who represented Fields in 2019 in his successful pursuit to have the NCAA waive its rule requiring players to sit out a year after a transfer, believes the petition is more than a Hail Mary attempt in getting the Big Ten to change its mind.
"I think it’s going to matter a lot," Mars told The Dispatch. "I think it already matters. I don’t think this dilemma is going to be solved in a court of law. I think it’s going to be solved in the court of public opinion. I can’t think of any individual in college football — player, coach or otherwise — who has more credibility and respect than Justin Fields."
Mars declined to say whether he is representing Fields now, but he said he has been in touch with Fields’ father, Pablo.
At the request of several parents of Big Ten players, Mars has written a two-page proposal entitled "Action Plan to Mitigate Concerns and Legal Risks of Playing Fall 2020 Football."
The centerpiece is the rescinding of the NCAA’s ban on waiver liabilities. The NCAA issued the ban in response to proposed legislation by U.S. Sens. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) that would prohibit colleges from requiring their athletes to sign waiver liabilities to resume campus workouts.
Mars believe the waiver liability bans are well-intentioned but counterproductive. If a college athlete is old enough to enlist in the military, Mars said, he should be old enough to accept the risk of playing sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mars said he doesn’t know how much of a role the liability issue factored in the Big Ten’s decision because of the conference’s lack of transparency.
"But I am confident that it weighed heavily in the decision," he said. "Whether it carried more weight than the scientific or medical evidence, I don’t know. But I’m confident that the legal exposure of the member institutions of the Big Ten played a large role in the decision. It had to."
In a recent Sports Illustrated story, Pablo Fields said he would be willing to sign a liability waiver if it allowed his son to play.
Mars said he believes the Big Ten’s decision to cancel fall sports was premature, and that it was made worse by the conference’s lack of detail in its announcement.
"The failure of transparency has called into question the legitimacy of their decision," Mars said, "which reminds me of that expression I heard and was taught long ago: Transparency is the foundation of legitimacy. Without it, you can expect people to question your motives and question whether you made a good decision."
Mars said there has been "some talk" about pursuing legal action on behalf of clients against the Big Ten, but said that’s not the path he wants to follow.
"I don’t think this is a situation that’s helped by people drawing swords, especially lawyers," Mars said.
The development of a saliva-based COVID-19 test serves as proof, in Mars’ view, that the Big Ten acted prematurely. That new test could also open the door to the conference reconsidering its decision, he said.
"Kevin Warren has a second chance here to do the right thing," Mars said of the first-year Big Ten commissioner.
If he doesn’t, he predicts that it "might shorten his tenure as a college football commissioner. I say that because these parents are not going to give up, and neither are the players."
On Monday, Justin Fields went on ESPN’s morning show "Get Up" to discuss the petition.
"It’s really my love for the game, my love for college football and my love for my teammates at Ohio State," he said. "I’ve seen the guys battle back from injuries, and I’ve seen how hard our coaches have fought for us to play."
Fields added, "If the SEC, ACC and Big 12 all think we can have a season safely, then I don’t see a reason why the Big Ten can’t do the same."