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NCAA's Transfer Waiver Problem is the Worst Thing About College Football Right Now

J.T. Daniels, Georgia
College football, for all its greatness and glory, has never been a sport completely devoid of problems. For nearly its entire history, the sport has dealt with questions of what it truly means to be a "student-athlete", the obvious institutional and financial differences between the sport's "haves" and "have-nots" and recently, questions about player's long-term health.

The invention of the sport's transfer portal a few years ago seemed like a logical next step in college football's evolution. Transfers are becoming increasingly common today, and even more important in the college football landscape. However, the invention of the portal has coincided with an issue that threatens the core of college competition: transfer waivers. To the casual college football observer, the difference between a player gaining immediate eligibility and having to sit out the traditional one-year penalty may not seem like a huge deal. But the way these waivers are being distributed and used consistently tilts in the favor of blue blood programs and big-name players. Essentially, the NCAA is playing favorites with the programs and players that bring in the most money (the programs they like the most), an appalling notion in the modern age of collegiate athletics.

To understand the warped logic being applied to NCAA transfer waivers, one simply has to look at some of the biggest transfers of the last few seasons. Following the 2018 campaign, Georgia QB Justin Fields, previously the nation's No. 1 quarterback coming out of high school, announced that he would be transferring to Ohio State. Around the same time, Ohio State's projected starting QB for the 2019 season, Tate Martell, saw the writing on the wall with Fields arriving and announced he would transfer to Miami. Neither transfer decision was necessarily shocking; Fields wasn't going to beat out Jake Fromm at UGA and wanted to play for Ryan Day at Ohio State, while Martell wanted to start, and didn't believe he could beat out Fields in Columbus. What is shocking is how quickly both were able to gain immediate eligibility for the upcoming 2019 season. Fields enrolled in classes in mid-January and was ruled eligible exactly a month later. Martell announced he would transfer a few weeks after Fields and also earned immediate eligibility in about a month. The reason for both of them earning a waiver so quickly? Still unclear. To be fair to Fields there was other circumstances that made it understandable why he would leave Georgia. During his freshman year in 2018, he was referred to as a racist slur by a member of UGA's baseball team during a loss to Tennessee. Certainly one could understand why Fields would not want to play for the Bulldogs following the incident, and the comments were used as "mitigating circumstances" for his waiver. With that being said, one has to question how these comments warranted immediate eligibility at the next university he would enroll. And Martell's reasons for earning a waiver? Beyond disagreements with some members of the coaching staff, there doesn't appear to be any clear reason given. In addition to those two last off-season, former USC quarterback J.T. Daniels made waves earlier this past off-season when he announced his decision to transfer to Georgia. He received word that he would be eligible to play in the 2020 season (assuming it happens) less than eight weeks after the decision to transfer. Like Fields, Daniels did have some circumstances that allowed him to earn eligibility. He missed nearly all of 2019 with a torn ACL, and he used the missed season as his required "redshirt" year during the transfer process.

Considering the NCAA allowed these high-profile names immediate waivers through relatively vague circumstances, one would assume that would allow to others also looking to enroll at new schools. Not quite. The NCAA's unclear rules suddenly become crystal-clear when they involve players enrolling at smaller Power Five or Group of Five schools. Simply look at tight end Luke Ford, who began his career at Georgia. Ford, a native of Carterville, IL., opted to transfer to Illinois to be closer to his family and his ill grandfather but his waiver for immediate eligibility was denied in April of 2019. Ford decided to appeal the waiver and was denied a second time by the NCAA. Their reasoning? Carterville, Illinois is roughly 190 miles away from the campus of Illinois, and the NCAA had set a threshold of 100 miles for gaining a waiver because of family reasons. A similar situation occurred for Brock Hoffman, an offensive linemen who decided to transfer from Coastal Carolina to Virginia Tech. Hoffman was hopeful to also be closer to home to play in front of his family and mother, who was recovering from a brain tumor. Once again, Hoffman's home was ruled outside the required NCAA radius, in a story that's pretty sickening to read.  If the NCAA wants to institute these strict rules for players with reasonable circumstances to play, so be it. But, why aren't these rules applied in the same way to Fields, Martell, and Daniels, cases that seemed to be left intentionally unclear and confusing?

It isn't just the rules that seem to intentionally vague and unclear, but how the timing process works on individual waivers. Again, Daniels, Fields, and Martell all saw their immediate eligibility waivers clear within the span of two months. Compared to that trio, less high-profile college players are forced to wait months and months to await any clear indication on their NCAA futures. Take Joey Gatewood and Phil Jurkovec, two QB transfers who enrolled to play at Kentucky and Boston College, respectively. Gatewood announced his transfer last December and still has no idea whether he'll be able to play in 2020. Jurkovec opted to transfer just a few weeks later, in early January, and also doesn't know his status for this next fall (again, assuming it happens in some form). Even look at Cade Mays, Justin Fields former teammate at Georgia. He decided to transfer in January and also has a reasonable exemption for leaving, in a truly bizarre story. He also has not heard his status for the fall, making Daniels quick waiver decision so shocking. Timing may not seem ultra-important when it comes to NCAA waivers, but imagine if COVID-19 was not a factor this season. These players would be rolling into fall camp still uncertain about their status. That be crucial for a player, especially those in the heat of position battles, which Jurkovec and Gatewood are in at their new schools.

All of this isn't to say that I'm against the transfer process as a whole. I think it's a great thing that we have reached the "player empowerment" era across the sports landscape. If you're a true college football fan, I believe you shouldn't have an issue with players making decisions that they believe is in the best interest for themselves, even if that means leaving your favorite school. The NCAA waiving the one-year transfer penalty altogether and allowing all players one transfer without having to sit out seems like a logical step in the right direction, and it would clear up a significant problem with transfer waivers. To the NCAA's credit, this is a move that has been discussed and will be voted on, although the vote was pushed back as a result of COVID-19. There are valid concerns about how this could affect roster management and depth, but coaches will be able to adapt, as they've done countless times before.

Now, I know there are always things going on behind the scenes that can have an effect on transfer waivers. There could certainly be understandable reasons for Daniels immediate waiver, and Fields and Martell before that. However, it's hard for any college football fan or supporter to view these waivers without seeing a pretty clear double standard that seems especially slanted in one direction. Competition and parity are two of the things that make college football so fascinating year-in, year-out, and it's almost like the NCAA is openly picking against that. The NCAA's involvement and overt favoritism has really degraded the transfer process, something that should be a positive option for players has turned into a game about blue bloods and money. There's more to college football than that, and the NCAA, who prides themselves on the notion of the "student athlete" should practice what they preach.

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