By William L. Nixon II
After a ‘frustrating’ inaugural season as the backup quarterback at the University of Georgia (UGA), Justin Fields is relying on new NCAA transfer guidelines to grant him immediate eligibility at Ohio State University (OSU).
The former five-star recruit from Kennesaw, GA committed to UGA knowing that he would likely be the reserve for Jake Fromm, a sophomore quarterback who led the team to the National Championship game the previous season. During Fields’ limited playing time throughout the season, he completed 27 passes for 328 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 266 yards. A video surfaced early in the season of Fields expressing frustration to a teammate following UGA’s 41-17 win over South Carolina. Fields acknowledged his frustration with his role throughout the season and on December 18 informed Head Coach Kirby Smart that he would be exploring his options. Thus the No. 2 overall recruit in the country a year earlier became the most highly coveted transfer in college football, making it known that he expects to contribute to the Buckeyes in the 2018 season after securing a waiver from the NCAA, which would award him immediate eligibility.
The case for Fields’ waiver centers around an incident that occurred during UGA’s home game against Tennessee on September 29, when Adam Sasser, a UGA baseball player, was overheard yelling “Put the [n-word] in,” referring to Fields. Several students who witnessed the behavior shared details of the incident on social media, which quickly captured the attention of the athletic administration. Athletic Director Greg McGarity’s response to the situation was immediate, interviewing Sasser and other individuals involved. An internal memo was sent to athletic department employees briefly describing the incident and to ‘reemphasize’ that discriminatory behavior would not be tolerated. The department’s findings were then turned over to UGA’s Equal Opportunity Office, responsible for reviewing violations of the university’s Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy.
After addressing the alleged incident with Fields, Smart expressed his disappointment for the behavior exhibited towards his player but did not feel it had an adverse effect on the team. The coach described the culture of the football program as being built on ‘tolerance’ and ‘mutual respect,’ and expected those who come to games to share the same beliefs. Baseball coach Scott Stricklin issued a statement supporting the investigation and reiterated his expectation for players to uphold the ‘highest standards’ and ‘values’ of the university. On October 3, four days after the incident occurred, UGA announced that Sasser, a senior all-conference first baseman, was being dismissed from the team. Sasser released a statement apologizing for his actions at the football game and the pain and distress that he caused. Details from the investigation were documented and will be available for the NCAA panel to review.
Thomas Mars, the attorney who assisted quarterback Shae Patterson’s transfer from the University of Mississippi (UOM) to Michigan without penalty a year ago, believes he can assist Fields in doing the same. In the case of Patterson and several other Rebel football players, Mars cited the NCAA policy allowing student-athletes with documented evidence of “egregious behavior” the ability to transfer without penalty. Mars was able to help Patterson build a case against Hugh Freeze and UOM, providing evidence Freeze deceived him during the recruiting process and downplayed the seriousness of the NCAA’s investigation of UOM — which would later lead to heavy sanctions, including a two-year postseason ban.
Since then, the NCAA has introduced legislation to provide student athletes more freedom to transfer. Among the new directive are guidelines for immediate eligibility if the 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. Mars believes that Fields has a strong case due to the previously mentioned racially-driven altercation, and the new legislation will only help the waiver process move quicker.
The Fields case will force the NCAA to further define the ‘mitigating circumstances’ that qualify a student-athlete for immediate eligibility. The ruling will educate student-athletes and intercollegiate leadership on how an isolated act of racism outside of a university’s control can affect the transfer process. In my opinion, the NCAA needs to evaluate pertinent and concrete facts such as:
The context and specific activities related to the incident;
How the university responded to the incident;
The immediate and evolving impact of the incident on the student, team, larger academic environment, and even community;
The response of the student-athlete following the incident; and,
How the current culture following the incident affects the student-athlete’s health, safety, and well-being.
The University’s Response:
Discrimination and racial slurs still occur in college athletics, and it is essential that leaders and administrators do what they can to reduce the problem. In 2016, Clemson University was at the center of a racial controversy when multiple South Carolina players claimed that Tiger players called them the n-word throughout the game. Head coach Dabo Swinney denied those allegations, as he led Clemson to their first National Championship over Alabama a month later. This year alone there have been several situations of racial controversies in FBS college football, including:
The University of Arizona: Kevin Sumlin dismissed linebacker Santino Marchiol when a video surfaced of Marchiol using a racist term to describe former teammates at Texas- A&M.
Ohio State University: The father of Florida wide receiver Trevon Grimes, claims his son transferred from Ohio State after being called the n-word from former wide receiver coach Zach Smith. Urban Meyer and the university denied the allegations of racism but confirmed an altercation took place between the athlete and coach.
Michigan State University: Suspended linebacker Jon Reschke for using the n-word in a text to a teammate. Reschke was ‘forgiven’ by teammates and allowed back on the team a year later.
University of New Mexico: After multiple investigations of misconduct, which spanned over nine months, head coach Bob Davie was suspended 30 days after using variations of the n-word at practice.
Fields’ argument would be the first transfer under the new guidelines that involved racism, and UGA’s response to the incident involving two student-athletes—Fields and Sasser—is arguably the most appropriate to date. The university athletic leadership launched an immediate formal investigation, following school policy that is in place to protect the safety and well-being of students. There was cooperation from all parties involved in the situation, which lead to public statements made by the athletic department, as well as the football and baseball programs reaffirming the commitment to a culture of ‘tolerance’ and ‘mutual respect.’ The administration reiterated a commitment to protecting both athletes throughout the process. As a matter of policy, UGA’s Equal Opportunity Office evaluated the situation, and appropriate steps were taken.
In addition to the response of the university, the NCAA should evaluate the ‘impact’ the incident had on the student-athlete. In the case of Trevon Grimes’ transfer from OSU, following the news that his mother was diagnosed with stage IV epithelial ovarian cancer and an alleged altercation with a football coach during practice in September 2017, the freshman returned home to Florida immediately and forfeited the remainder of the season. Grimes received a waiver and immediate eligibility to transfer to the University of Florida so he could be within driving distance from home, able to take care of his mother as needed. Grimes did not cite the alleged altercation between himself and the coach during the waiver process.
Fields’ response to the incident at UGA was less immediate. After addressing the situation with Fields, UGA football coach Smart reported to the media that he felt the isolated incident did not affect the program. Fields participated the remainder of the season, including six in-season games, the SEC Championship game against Alabama, and the Sugar Bowl against Texas. During those remaining season games, he completed 12 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns, as well as carried the ball 29 times for 151 yards and a touchdown. Fields activities suggest that there was not an immediate and deleterious effect on his ‘safety, health, and well-being.’
The waiver process protects student-athletes from current environments or cultural circumstances that have a negative impact on their ‘safety, health, and well-being.’ In the case of Patterson and his UOM teammates, they provided documented evidence that they had been wronged by the school they were transferring from. Patterson claims that former UOM Coach Freeze intentionally lied about the scope and potential implications the NCAA’s investigation would have on the program. The investigation resulted in a two-year bowl ban which prompted the Patterson to transfer.
Providing Fields with immediate eligibility would be a poor reflection on the culture at UGA. The documented evidence clearly shows that the leadership, athletic administration, and Equal Opportunity Office at UGA conducted activities within their control to resolve the isolated issue and safeguard the culture from future acts of racism. They attended to Fields himself. The alleged incident was isolated and outside the control of the program and institution. There is no documentation suggesting that there was or is an environment of racism at the university.
William L. Nixon II is a Doctoral Student at Troy University specializing in research related to Intercollegiate Leadership and Organizational Behavior. He is currently serving in the Brigham Young University athletic department. He lives in Provo, Utah.