If Justin Fields wants to leave Georgia, then more power to him

Georgia quarterback Justin Fields might transfer after one season in Athens. USA Today said Fields is gone. DawgNation reports that Fields talked to UGA coaches about transferring, but no one at the school or in the Fields family has confirmed that he’s leaving. 

From the outside I see good reasons for Fields to leave UGA, but it’s irrelevant what I think. I hope Fields, a Harrison High product, makes the best decision for himself. Fields certainly owes no loyalty to UGA, one of several prominent schools to offer him a scholarship so he could help them make money. 

Fields’ departure would leave Georgia coach Kirby Smart with one (really good) scholarship quarterback on the roster, Jake Fromm. Nick Saban managed to get two blue-chip QBs to stick around for a while, but it’s a hard thing to do.

It’s even harder now that NCAA guidelines give coaches less leverage to prevent them from transferring. I like this trend. Players are more aware about the system designed to limit their autonomy, and finding more ways to take back some of it. 

Public pressure compelled the NCAA to create ways for players to assert a bit more control. Players still can’t earn their true market value, but at least it’s easier for them to switch jobs when their current gig doesn’t work out. 

Fields reportedly is exploring new NCAA options to transfer without penalty. Put this in the same broad category as star players skipping bowl games to avoid injury risk and prepare for the NFL draft. Schools make athletics about business, and now more players are doing the same. 

Coaches have seen their absolute power over players diminished a bit. Too bad if they don’t like it. The same goes for any fans who say they care about players, then instantly turn on players who decide it’s best for them to go. 

The NCAA has reformed some rules that gave powerful coaches even more leverage over players. It’s increasingly difficult for the organization to pretend players are “amateurs” when they are the labor and the product for a multibillion-dollar industry. 

Eventually the money got so big that more noticed the imbalance. The NCAA has responded with a trickle of rules that are fairer to players. 

Players who earn undergraduate degrees are allowed to transfer to FBS schools without penalty. Reforms adopted last summer essentially prohibit schools from blocking players who want to transfer. There’s a “mitigating circumstance” exception that allows players to transfer without sitting out a season (presumably this is the one Fields would explore). 

According to the NCAA, a record-high 13.3 percent of FBS players transferred schools before this season. This is a good thing. More players can make self-interested decisions about their futures, like the rest of us.

I’m sure players gaining more independence is worrying for those who want to preserve the NCAA’s sham “amateur” system. Included among that group are coaches and administrators who make money off the players, and the fans who cheer them. 

Coaches obviously benefit from punitive transfer rules that give them more control. Coaches and athletic directors switch jobs regularly, for money and other reasons, without penalty. If players could do the same, it would be harder for coaches and ADs to keep good teams together, and that would threaten their upward mobility. 

Lots of fans like things the way things are, too. They want (and pay for) the vicarious thrills and glory of their team winning. There’s a better chance for that when big-time talents like Fields stay put, so some fans are fine with rules that make it harder for them to leave. 

Race is part of this equation, of course. To pretend otherwise is to ignore the obvious.

About half of all FBS players are black. Narrow it down to the most valuable players, star athletes at Power 5 programs, and the majority are black. They are among the people prohibited from seeking their true market value and exercising full autonomy as workers because NCAA schools are allowed to collude. 

Meanwhile, about 90 percent of FBS head coaches and athletics directors are white (with roughly the same ratio in Power 5). They are among the people who are can seek more money and better jobs with few restrictions. We can see from professional sports that, absent market interventions, the best players are worth more than the best coaches and general managers 

Clearly, college football’s white power structure profits from the labor and marketing draw of black athletes. NCAA restrictions prevent players from doing the same. The courts and the Congress give it all the veneer of law and respectability. 

These are the politics that people in the “stick to sports” crowd don’t see, or at least pretend they don’t. To them, college football’s status quo is just the way things ought to be. Their biases and blind spots lead them to believe the only ones engaging in politics are those who challenge an unfair system that is (obviously) political. 

Fields is making a personal choice. But his decision, and the reaction to it, should be understood within the context of college football’s system. It’s still stacked against players, and wholesale changes seem far away, but it’s being chipped away bit by bit. 

That’s why, if Fields decides to leave Georgia, I hope to see him playing next season for whichever program he chooses. More power to him.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.