Justin Fields case thrust Atlanta lawyer into NCAA spotlight

Georgia quarterbacks Justin Fields (1) and Jake Fromm prepare to play Texas in the Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Tuesday,  Jan. 1, 2019, in New Orleans. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Caption
Georgia quarterbacks Justin Fields (1) and Jake Fromm prepare to play Texas in the Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, in New Orleans. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

The man who some refer to the father of college-football free agency probably knows less about the sport than anybody in the business.

Thomas A. Mars – “just Tom” as he tells anybody who talks to him — said he now knows the difference between “under center” and “shotgun” and other football terms. But two years ago, when his work as an Arkansas trial lawyer led him into the NCAA’s investigation of Ole Miss, he said you could fit everything he knew about college football on a 3-by-5 index card.

“No kidding,” Mars said. “I’m not a college sports enthusiast. Never have been. I’ve learned a lot though. Now I could probably fill up the front and the back.”

That’s a line Mars uses a lot. Don’t let him fool you.

The son of Michigan alums and a graduate of the University of Arkansas School of Law — No. 1 in his class — Mars has a good idea about which schools value football and what the top players mean to those schools.

He is quite sure, for instance, that the University of Georgia is one such school and that Justin Fields is one such player. But that didn’t become apparent to Mars until Dec. 13.

Mars was driving through metro Atlanta traffic that afternoon when he received a call from Pablo Fields. Fields is the father of Justin Fields, but that didn’t mean anything to Mars. At the time, he was more interested to learn that Pablo Fields was a retired Atlanta police officer, for Mars once was a police officer.

He bonds with cops, or ex-cops. “It’s kind of a brotherhood thing,” he said. So Mars just glossed right over the part about Pablo being the father of “Georgia quarterback Justin Fields.”

Until, that is, Mars picked up his son from his private school in Alpharetta, and he jumped into the car while Mars was on the phone. Like a lot of high school sophomores, 16-year-old Thomas is a sports enthusiast, and unlike his father, he knows all kinds of stuff about college football — and more than a little about the Georgia Bulldogs.

So, overhearing his father’s phone conversation, Thomas could make out two distinct words: “Justin” and “Fields.”

“I hang up, and Thomas says, ‘was that Justin Fields’ father,’” Tom Mars recounted. “I said, ‘yeah, how’d you know?’ He says, ‘THE Justin Fields?’ I said, ‘yeah, I guess. Is that a big deal?’”

Mars said his son gave him “the biggest eye-roll thing” — “I get those a lot” — and starts reciting stats and facts about Fields.

“I honestly had no idea,” Tom Mars said. “I just knew he was a quarterback at Georgia who was thinking about transferring, and his dad was an ex-cop.”

Mars would soon learn what a “big deal” Fields was. After handling Fields’ case, Mars’ business has taken off to the point that he can’t handle it all anymore.

Mars said he stopped counting “a while back” when the number of clients he has represented in NCAA eligibility cases reached 50. That number grows daily. He said he typically accepts two or three calls a day inquiring about his services, but he said that shortly after the Fields’ ruling, he accepted eight clients in one day.

Not coincidentally, Mars is leaving his Arkansas law firm to start his own practice, the Mars Law Firm, with offices in Atlanta and Northwest Arkansas.

Sterling track record

Mars is not the first transfer legal specialist, but he might be the best. Technically, eligibility matters are handled by the schools at which transfers land, but a transfer waiver on which Mars was a consultant has never been denied.

Fields, who probably was Mars’ highest-profile client, left Georgia and transferred to Ohio State. He was ruled eligible to play immediately for the Buckeyes on Feb. 8, about a month after enrolling at Ohio State.

There have been allegations that Mars used a highly publicized racial incident that occurred at Sanford Stadium during the Bulldogs’ game against Tennessee in October to help expedite the process under the NCAA”s new “mitigating circumstances” waiver.

For the record, Mars won’t say what circumstances he used. “I’m just not going to tell you,” Mars said.

“I had a very specific reason for saying that everybody knew the full story they’d feel differently,” Mars added. “That Tennessee incident was very public, so people jump to conclusions. I won’t talk about it publicly, but there is more to it than that.”

Mars now represents ex-Georgia tight end Luke Ford. The top recruit in Illinois as a senior, Ford signed with Georgia and played in nine games as a freshman last season. But Ford decided to transfer after the season, citing the need to be closer to home and his ailing grandfather.

When Ford’s initial request to have his eligibility restored via the NCAA’s hardship waiver was denied last month, Georgia fans led a national outcry and launched a #FreeLukeFord movement on social media. Then the Ford family hired Mars, and there was across-the-board celebration.

“Yeah, I read that stuff,” Mars said. “It might surprise you, but I have a Twitter account. I don’t have any interest in tweeting, but I like to stay abreast of what’s being said on social media about cases I’m working on.”

And now that he’s on Ford’s case, many people are certain that Ford’s eligibility will be restored. On Mars’ recommendation, Illinois took a path less taken by filing a “reconsideration” rather than an appeal.

“I don’t think the Illini nation will be disappointed,” Mars said confidently.

Said Tim Ford, Luke’s father: “Tom’s 100 percent immersive once he gets on something. I got a text from him at 1:26 in the morning the other day. He’s fantastic.”

Champion of athletes’ rights

Mars worked on behalf of several players who wanted to transfer in the aftermath of NCAA penalties against the Ole Miss football program. Among them were quarterback Shea Patterson, who transferred to Michigan, and receiver Van Jefferson, who transferred to Florida and saw his eligibility restored a few weeks before the 2018 season began.

Each became key players for their respective new teams last season.

But before Patterson and Jefferson, he assisted Ole Miss safety Deontay Anderson. Call him “patient zero” in the migratory trend we’re witnessing in college sports.

“I’ll never forget it,” Mars said. “(Former Ole Miss coach) Houston (Nutt) and I talked about the fact that these kids are the ones who are being misled, and it’s the university’s intention to mislead them. They’re really the victims here.”

Mars is a fierce litigator whose weapons are records and documentation. He has spent hours conferring with NCAA officials about their eligibility requirements and learned his way around the membership’s voluminous rule book, which he described as “Byzantine.”

Mars is careful to point out that he does not go “against the NCAA.” In fact, he has made a few friends in their Indianapolis headquarters.

“A lawyer doesn’t battle the judge in a court of law,” Mars said. “I think that’s a whole area that’s pretty much misunderstood by everybody. The NCAA gets criticized pretty harshly for the rules, but they’re not up there in the national offices writing rules. University representatives are the ones who write the rules, then the NCAA has to apply them.”

The advent of the NCAA’s transfer portal has sped the process. It allows athletes to survey the landscape for a potential landing spot as they consider whether transfer. And so has the one-year-old mitigating circumstances waiver that the NCAA has created.

As a result, athletes are taking advantage of transfers by the thousands. Not only is it being utilized by Division I football and basketball players, Mars said he is hearing more from lower-division athletes and from tennis, volleyball and hockey players.

While college coaches might complain about the portal’s existence and the headaches it has created, Mars sees it as a good thing for college athletics.

“I started to think this effort could actually result in transfer reform if we played our cards right,” Mars said. “To get six guys an immediate eligibility waiver, it probably made sense to think about this in different terms and take a look at NCAA rules. But I also think the biggest factor has been the court of public opinion.”