ATHENS — Jacob Eason. He’s the guy I find myself thinking about more and more these days.
It’s not because we’ll finally get to see the former Georgia quarterback play again this fall, but it is related to that. It’s because in this age of transfer portals and rubber-stamp eligibility waivers, I’m left to wonder, why not Eason?
I mean, consider Eason’s situation: He comes to UGA from all the across the country in Washington; he starts as a true freshman; he does everything he’s told to do; he starts the first game as a sophomore; he gets hurt in said game; he comes back a few weeks later but loses his starting job because the backup has come in and played better; Eason sticks with his team through its run to the national championship game; then he announces at season’s end that he intends to transfer back home.
If ever there was somebody who probably should have been granted immediate eligibility, shouldn’t it have been Jacob Eason? But he wasn’t. Eason was told he’d have to sit out via the NCAA’s antiquated Division I transfer rule. So he was admitted to Washington but remained sidelined for another year behind Jake Browning.
Meanwhile, we just witnessed the the transfer of Justin Fields. Comparatively, his move from Georgia to Ohio State was no more problematic than rearranging lawn furniture. First, Fields announced he was leaving UGA, then he confirmed that Columbus, Ohio, was his destination. Tate Martell, the Buckeyes’ reported quarterback in waiting subsequently announced that he’s leaving Ohio State, then Ohio State announced that Fields’ eligibility waiver request for 2019 was approved.
There are a few problems with judging what to make of all this. First and foremost is the lack of transparency. The NCAA’s “transfer portal,” such as it is, is protected by Federal privacy laws such as FERPA and HIPAA. So it’s not like us journalists, or you, alumni and fans, can go in there and review the circumstances and make sure everything was on the up-and-up.
No, we’re left to assume and speculate. That is, unless there is somebody directly involved — say the student-athlete or his family — who is willing to divulge exactly what the nature of his waiver requests. So far, I’ve haven’t encountered any of those.
We were left to believe that Fields, after he announced his intent to transfer, was going to claim racial discrimination based on the documented event of slurs being directed at him by a another student-athlete who was subsequently dismissed from his team. That was based on the initial news account written USA Today’s Dan Wolken, citing sources.
But then Fields came out with a statement after his eligibility had been approved saying that his waiver was based on nothing of the sort.
“In my silence, people began to speculate, and the story took on a life of its own,” Fields said in his first and likely last statement on the matter. “”Now that this matter is concluded, I would like to clarify some facts. I have no regrets about my time at UGA and have no hard feelings for the school or football program. My overall experience at UGA was fully consistent with UGA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. My sister is a softball player at UGA. I am still close friends with many of my UGA teammates. A part of me will always be a Georgia Bulldogs fan.”
So what was the actual basis of Fields’ transfer request? I reached out to UGA to try to find out. Alas, I could not. I was told that’d have to come from Ohio State’s end.
You can probably guess what happened when I reached out to the Buckeyes. Yep, and around and around we went.
But then I did some more digging and, as it turns out, the whole pretense for what is required for a student-athlete to transfer is so vague that it leaves the actual reasons for doing so pretty much moot.
Turns out, it really doesn’t take anything terrible or awful for athletes to be granted immediate eligibility moving from one FBS program to another. According to the new bylaw that was enacted just this past October, a student-athlete need only be academically and athletically eligible, receive no opposition from the school they’re leaving and — here’s the important part — show “the transfer is due to documented mitigating circumstances that are outside the student-athlete’s control and directly impact the health, safety and well-being of the student-athlete.”
What possible mitigating circumstances could Fields have documented for the NCAA? All I could think of him saying is, “I wanted to play quarterback for Georgia, but then I got there and a guy named Jake Fromm was playing the same position as me and he played better than me. So I want to go to Ohio State because they told me I could have the job if I went there.”
But we’ll never know what he actually said. That information is protected by FERPA and attorney-client privilege. Fields was represented in his transfer by Arkansas trial lawyer Thomas Mars, who has become the leading advocate for the transfer rights of student-athletes.
“The rule passed last April is intentionally very vague,” Mars told ESPN.com in a recent examination of the transfer portal phenomena. “Who knows what mitigating factors or circumstances means?”
Well, Mars probably does, but he’s not saying.
The results have been pretty predictable. According to that same ESPN report, more than 1,400 student-athletes are currently in “the portal.” It’s clogged to bursting. Of the cases processed so far, 79.7 percent of them have resulted in immediate eligibility, according to the ESPN report.
Which brings us back to Eason. If anybody had a complaint, I’d think it could be him. Back in the day (there I go again) there used to be a sort of unwritten policy that most coaches went by in which a front-line starter such as Eason who was sidelined because of an injury would be given back his position upon his return.
Obviously, Kirby Smart doesn’t subscribe to that policy, nor should he, necessarily. For, while that policy has been around for ages, so has the one that says, “don’t be Wally Pipp.” Pipp, as the story goes, was a power-hitting first baseman for the New York Yankees who allegedly asked to sit out a game in 1925 because he had a headache. He was replaced in the lineup by Lou Gehrig, who went on to play in a record 2,130 consecutive games.
Here’s the other side of that story people don’t see to ever cite: While Pipp never played first base for the Yankees again, he did play another three years for the Cincinnati Reds. That’s right, he hopped into the transfer portal and played elsewhere.
I reached out to Eason and the University of Washington to find out whether he made any attempt to appeal the NCAA’s Division I transfer policy that required him to sit out last season. All I could gather was that the Eason family put out “feelers” about whether an appeal would be worth their while, and they were convinced it would not.
Of course, the Huskies already had an established quarterback in Jake Browning, so Eason’s services weren’t sorely needed. But what if Browning had been injured his senior year this past season? What if Washington found itself in desperate need of a quarterback?
As it was, Eason wasn’t an option. But, as it is now, any quarterbacks transferring into UW since last season ended will be able to step in right away next season. And Eason, though he is the favorite, must endure yet another QB competition, with Browning’s backup Jake Haener and three former 4-star prospects (Jacob Sirmon, Colson Yankoff and Dylan Morris) battling for reps.
In the meantime, the Bulldogs have no cause to complain. After all, they were one of the precedent-setters when it comes to this domino-tumble of transferring. Lest we forget, Demetris Robertson came in from Cal and played straight away. Turns out that wasn’t quite the difference-making move many predicted.
Then again, it’s still up to players to make the plays wherever they go. Maybe D-Rob will, too.