ATHENS — A month ago, I talked to student-athlete rights’ champion Tom Mars about the Luke Ford case. The Atlanta-based attorney and expert on NCAA eligibility matters was hired by the family of the former Georgia tight end to advise them on their appeal for a transfer waiver at the University of Illinois.
At the time, Mars confidently pronounced that he was “optimistic this process will end well for Luke and Illinois.”
Ford’s waiver request for immediate eligibility was denied a second time by the NCAA this past Friday. There will be no more appeals. Game over.
I talked to Mars again on Monday. He was flummoxed.
“I was very surprised; you might say shocked,” said Mars, back in Atlanta after several weeks in Arkansas. “It makes no sense and the optics are not good. They’re horrible, in fact.”
They sure are. No matter how you slice it up, the NCAA looks bad on this one. And at least one other.
On the same day Ford learned his appeal was denied, Virginia Tech offensive lineman Brock Hoffman learned his was also. Both were attempting to move closer to home via the NCAA’s hardship waiver because they have gravely ill loved ones.
Once again, the NCAA got it wrong. But when it comes to its arcane eligibility system, it’s never about right and wrong with the NCAA.
You will recall that Ford played for Georgia last year. Considered one of the top tight ends in the country, he left his home state of Illinois to come play for the Bulldogs in the SEC, and did pretty well, actually. After playing in nine games as a freshman, Ford decided he wanted to go back home because his grandfather is very sick. They’re very close and Ford wanted to be able to see him.
Ford entered the transfer portal, Georgia released him from his scholarship, Illinois offered him a new one and the Illini filed a hardship waiver with the NCAA on Ford’s behalf requesting immediate eligibility. Should’ve been end of story.
The resulting reaction has been quite predictable. “It’s not fair,” fans cry out.
And it’s not, anecdotally. When compared to the transfers of Justin Fields and Tate Martell, who are going to be eligible to play right away at Ohio State and Miami, respectively, it looks terribly unfair.
The fact is, those transfers are not the same. The narrative is that Fields and Martell transferred for competitive reasons, that they left because they weren’t getting enough playing time where they were. But even if that’s the truth, that’s not what’s on their transfer paperwork.
Those guys went the relatively new and broadly-defined “mitigating circumstances” waiver route. They were able to introduce therein things like racism and coaching changes and other “evidence” they’d been wronged in some way.
Fans don’t want to hear that, and I don’t blame them. Everybody wants what’s right, what’s just.
The truth is, the NCAA’s not really about any of that. It’s a bureaucratic behemoth of rules and regulations and pencil-pushers. When transfer paperwork comes in, they look to see which box is checked, move it to the appropriate pile and then pull out their proverbial template of rules and see if everything lines up.
Ford’s hometown of Carterville, Ill., is 190 miles from Champaign and the University of Illinois and Hoffman’s hometown of Statesville, N.C., is 105 miles from Blacksburg, Va. Both of those numbers are greater than 100, so they don’t fit in the template.
We can get into all the semantics you want about why these two appeals were denied, but it really can be summarized quite succinctly. They checked the wrong boxes on the NCAA paperwork.
There’s an easy solution to all this (isn’t that the case with most mucky bureaucracies?). That is, every Division I student-athlete gets a one-time, no-questions-asked transfer permit. You sign, you show up, you play (or not). If you decide you don’t like it or things aren’t working out the way you thought, you pick up your football (or basketball, or tennis racket), go somewhere else and start over.
“I predict that will happen and that it will happen in the not too distant future,” said Mars, who is advising dozens of active NCAA transfers out of his law offices in Atlanta and Northwest Arkansas. “This movement of student-athlete freedom has gone too far to turn back now.”
Coaches and athletic directors won’t go for it because it doesn’t jibe with their bottom-line purpose, which is to hoard all the talent possible either for their team’s benefit or the detriment of potential competitors. Think about it. If a kid is not good enough to start for your team, should it bother you if he starts elsewhere?
At the end of the day, Ford is going to be all right. So is Hoffman. It’s important to realize that both young men got what they wanted. They’re closer to their loved ones, they’re still on scholarship and they’re going to play football — eventually.
They shouldn’t have to wait, but the NCAA’s antiquated system forces them to.
“The absence of any logic in penalizing student-athletes becomes even more apparent when one considers the freedom that other college students have to transfer without penalty,” Mars said. “After all, there’s no rule that requires a college violinist with a scholarship to be barred from playing in any concerts for a year following their transfer to another school. What’s more, when a student-musician transfers, you never hear anyone say ‘by giving you a scholarship, we paid for you to stay here until you graduate.'”
But trampling on the individual rights of student-athletes under the guise of competitive disadvantage has been going on since the beginning in college football. Mars pointed out the rule that the NCAA currently clings to was originally adopted way back when the sport was governed by the American Intercollegiate Association.
Paraphrasing the language of the times, it read: “No student nor any undergraduate who has registered or attended any lectures or recitations at any other university or college shall be allowed to play.”
That amendment was introduced in 1893. Football has changed a little since then. Society has changed a whole lot more.
This needs to change, too.