Georgia Tech offensive tackle Jack DeFoor received good – if unsurprising – news Thursday. The NCAA granted him an immediate eligibility waiver to play next season following his transfer from Ole Miss before the spring semester. Where he typically would have had to sit out the 2018 season and had two seasons to play, DeFoor will instead have three seasons of eligibility remaining.
It was a process that began as the 2017 season was concluding and took far longer than anticipated. When DeFoor was one of six Ole Miss players seeking the help of attorney Tom Mars to help them and their families with their quest for a waiver, “I told them I’d be glad to help and actually thought it would be a pretty quick and easy process.”
It proved anything but. Mars, who maintains a home in Atlanta and also works out of Little Rock, Ark., gave The Atlanta Journal-Constitution a rare behind-the-scenes look at the steps involved in securing the waiver for DeFoor and his former Ole Miss teammates.
In mid-November he got a call from the father of Ole Miss safety Deontay Anderson, who was planning to transfer. Anderson’s father knew of Mars’ work in securing a public apology from Ole Miss for making disparaging and misleading remarks about former coach Houston Nutt to reporters. Further, Anderson’s father had educated himself in NCAA transfer rules.
Specifically, according to a rule in place at the time, an athlete seeking to transfer could bypass the year-in-residence requirement if “the student-athlete was the victim of egregious behavior by the previous institution or student that directly impacts the health, safety and well-being of the student-athlete.” The athlete also needed a statement of support from the original institution and objective evidence to back up the assertions.
Mars had no shortage of examples of “egregious behavior” by Ole Miss, namely an organized attempt by school officials to pin the blame for the school’s NCAA violations on Nutt. It was an effort to downplay then-coach Hugh Freeze’s culpability and the likelihood of NCAA sanctions to keep the incoming recruiting class (which included DeFoor) from bolting.
“They knew I was the custodian of the fruits of 900 hours of work that I’d done for Houston Nutt,” Mars said.
In late February, Mars started with quarterback Shea Patteron’s transfer to Michigan, figuring that by leading with the most high-profile transfer, he could simultaneously contest the case in the court of public opinion and place pressure on Ole Miss. Michigan filed a personal statement from Patterson as well as a statement from Patterson’s father.
When Ole Miss objected to the egregious-behavior waiver, Mars fired back through multiple media outlets that were largely sympathetic to Patterson’s plight. When the NCAA case manager came back with two questions for Patterson – why did he leave when he did, and why not earlier? – Patterson and Mars crafted a nine-page response with supporting documentation.
“It became pretty ugly,” Mars said.
Mars suspects that, had the egregious-behavior rule stayed in place, Patterson (and DeFoor and their former teammates) would have ultimately prevailed. However, as Patterson’s case continued, the NCAA modified its rules regarding immediate-eligibility waivers. Specifically, the rule-making body granted immediate eligibility to athletes whose 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.”
That standard is far less stringent than demonstrating egregious behavior, and does not require one school to make damning accusations of another, and for the other to own up to them.
The change was adopted, effectively immediately, on April 18. With a new path, Michigan withdrew its paperwork asserting Ole Miss’ malfeasance, and Mars composed a new request, which had three points:
--The NCAA investigation took longer than expected;
--The coach who had recruited him to Ole Miss, Freeze, was no longer at the school, having resigned;
--NCAA sanctions were considerably more severe than he had been led to believe.
No longer having to repudiate claims of having intentionally misled athletes, Ole Miss threw its support behind Patterson in the new waiver request. The NCAA’s rule change was announced on a Wednesday. By Friday, Patterson had his waiver.
Mars doesn’t think it was a coincidence that the NCAA adjusted the transfer rules in the midst of the Patterson case. For Michigan to win immediate eligibility for Patterson – and likewise for Tech to do the same for DeFoor – it was required to lodge accusations of egregious behavior against another NCAA institution. Mars assisted Michigan’s compliance office in putting together the waiver request, but it was filed by Michigan. And after Michigan, six other schools were prepared to hammer Ole Miss with additional assertions of egregious behavior.
Further, because six of the athletes were represented by an attorney willing to speak publicly on the cases, Ole Miss’ misdeeds were out in the open.
“I think it’s pretty clear that Ole Miss didn’t like that, the NCAA didn’t like that,” Mars said.
In a climate where the NCAA is engaged in a public debate regarding the rights of its athletes, the case of Patterson (and DeFoor and their Ole Miss teammates) probably was not one the NCAA (or Ole Miss) wanted to have linger.
“(The NCAA) should be applauded for doing this, but you’d have to be incredibly naïve to think that this was not related, and it just happened to occur right when it did, and it happened to fit nicely to allow Shea Patterson to get a waiver 48 hours later,” Mars said.
Dave Ridpath, a professor of sports administration at Ohio and a former compliance officer at Marshall, was in agreement with Mars regarding the timing of the adjustment to the transfer rule. Further, it isn’t every piece of NCAA legislation that is enacted immediately.
“It is not a coincidence at all,” Ridpath wrote in an email. “From a larger perspective, the NCAA is getting hammered in public opinion and in court with regard to treatment of college athletes as employees or students. Restricting athletes in any way is problematic for the NCAA to continue to protect the “student athlete” and amateurism ideal.”
Once Patterson’s waiver was granted, those of DeFoor and Central Florida wide receiver Tre Nixon, UAB linebacker Jarrion Street, Nebraska linebacker Breon Dixon (from Grayson High School) and Anderson (now at Houston) were fairly simple. Where they had 36-page waiver requests ready to send, they only needed applications no longer than a page and a half.
The virtually identical requests were filed two weeks ago, Mars said. The response came back Thursday. (Mars did not represent Dixon, the Nebraska transfer. Only the transfer of Van Jefferson to Florida has not gone through, as the school has not filed the paperwork, Mars said, though he expected it to be done shortly.)
“Every other school, including Georgia Tech, just rode Shea Patterson’s coattails and submitted basically the same paperwork,” Mars said.
For Mars, it has been a career highlight. Typically, his work involves, as he put it, one party’s bank account getting bigger and another’s getting smaller. In this instance, he has worked for a goal more personal than money. He has worked alongside and grown close to the players and their families since last fall, wading in the uncertainty of the outcome. He has seen the emotional toll it took on them and their joy in the result.
“I’ve not done anything in my 30-plus years as a lawyer that was more satisfying personally than the work we did for these Ole Miss transfers,” said Mars, who previously served as general counsel for Wal-Mart.
An upshot of the new transfer legislation is that has opened the door for athletes seeking immediate eligibility waivers. A football or basketball player whose coach is fired or leaves for another job could reasonably contend that his well-being has been impacted by circumstances beyond his control. Indeed, it was one of the contentions of the Ole Miss transfers.
The NCAA is considering further changes in the transfer rule, including the possibility of allowing athletes with certain GPAs who are also meeting standards in their progress to their degrees can have immediate eligibility.
Whether those rules are passed or not, it won’t be a surprise if an athlete of a team with a fired coach transfers and seeks an immediate-eligibility waiver on the well-being grounds.
If it happens, would a school attempt to dispute the contention? It would seem hypocritical for a school to boast about the family atmosphere that its coach cultivates and then contend its athletes aren’t negatively impacted when that coach isn’t there anymore.
“I have clients who are coaches, too, so I’ve heard both perspectives on this, but personally, I think the current transfer rules are appalling,” Mars said.
If successful, it would likely cause more athletes to consider the same route, which, potentially, could have the effect of causing schools to be more hesitant on pulling the trigger on firing coaches.
DeFoor just wanted to transfer to Tech and use available NCAA legislation to use all four of his seasons of eligibility. In the process, he may have helped move college athletics into a new realm.