Eason and Fields - the before and after of transfers

Jacob Eason, largely if not entirely because of injury, lost his job as Georgia’s quarterback to Jake Fromm in 2017. Eason transferred to Washington. He sat out last season. He’ll be eligible to play this season. 

Justin Fields arrived in Athens in January 2018 and found, apparently to his surprise, he couldn’t dislodge the incumbent Fromm. Fields transferred to Ohio State. He won’t need to sit out a season, his request for a waiver having been approved posthaste by the NCAA. He’s expected to be the Buckeyes’ starter come September, nine months after he last wore a Georgia uniform. 

Two highly regarded quarterbacks -- at the same school, one year apart -- couldn’t beat out Jake Fromm. As highly regarded quarterbacks who aren’t starting invariably do, both left. One had to sit out a season. The other did not. Yes, it’s weird. It’s also the new reality – at least unless/until the NCAA changes its mind about transfers, which it might do. 

On Thursday, ESPN’s Dan Murphy reported: “The NCAA has started an all-encompassing review of the guidelines it uses when granting immediate eligibility to athletes who transfer from one school to another before finishing their degree.” The figurative ink, we note, had scarcely dried on those guidelines.

In January 2018, the NCAA voted to create a “transfer portal,” which allowed a player to state his intention to go elsewhere without seeking his current school’s approval. In April, the NCAA Council relaxed the criteria for immediate eligibility with verbiage so hazy it barely constitutes criteria. All a player must do now is offer “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 were Fields’ “mitigating circumstances”? His lawyer – Thomas Mars of Arkansas, the transfers’ go-to counsel – hasn’t said, and the NCAA doesn’t explain waiver decisions; it just says “yea” or “nay.” It was speculated that Fields’ claim would be based on the October incident at Sanford Stadium that saw a member of the school’s baseball team direct a racial slur toward Fields. (The baseball player was summarily expelled.) After his waiver was granted, Fields said: “My overall experience at UGA was fully consistent with UGA's commitment to diversity and inclusion. My sister is a softball player at UGA. “

So: We don’t know what Mars’ argument was, or if the NCAA even requires much of an argument. As Mars told ESPN: “The rule passed last April is intentionally very vague. Who knows what mitigating factors or circumstances means?” 

After it was learned that Fields was headed for Ohio State, the quarterback in line to replace Dewayne Haskins, who declared for the NFL draft, announced that he was transferring to Miami. Tate Martell is himself seeking a waiver, and an attorney advising him told ESPN that “it should really be the burden of someone else to disprove that (a player has been adversely affected by his former school).” 

That comes close to suggesting that any player who feels unfulfilled in any way -- lack of playing time, lack of carries/catches -- can claim mistreatment. If requiring a transfer to sit out a season seems harsh, the new way appears an overcorrection. It’s not easy to feel sympathy for millionaire coaches, but imagine how perilous roster management could become. Do you recruit 10 quarterbacks in the expectation that the nine who aren’t No. 1 will be gone before they’re sophomores?

The NCAA’s intent was surely to err on the side of its players. The unintended consequence could be the creation of a system of free agency wherein anybody/everybody is bound to nobody/nothing. This didn’t blow up overnight – receiver Demetris Robertson was granted a waiver after transferring from California to Georgia last summer, you’ll recall – but the sight of Fields becoming Ohio State’s de facto quarterback five weeks after leaving Georgia because he couldn’t become its quarterback was so dizzying that the NCAA is already reconsidering.

As Kaity McKittrick, chair of the NCAA’s legislative relief committee, told Murphy: “We do believe attention on a small number of high-profile requests can skew perceptions of the scope of staff and committee review. Each waiver request is reviewed individually, as they each present a unique fact pattern and almost always confidential information about the student.”

Quarterbacks upping sticks has long been a sideshow – Oklahoma’s past two QBs, both transfers, won consecutive Heisman Trophys; now the Sooners have Jalen Hurts, lately of Alabama – but the new requirements are so flimsy it’d be an upset if any waiver isn’t granted. Ergo, the NCAA faces a choice: Does it walk back its player-friendly stance, or does it throw open the gates and say, “Go play wherever and whenever you want”? 

Back to Eason: He stands as the “before” to the current laissez-faire way of doing business. As Chip Towers of DawgNation reported, Eason’s family “put out feelers” as to whether a waiver claim might have a chance of being granted and “were convinced it would not.” But that was then, meaning barely a year ago, and this is now, meaning a whole new world.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.

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