If you’ve paid attention to the transfer debate around quarterback Tate Martell, what happened on Tuesday was a surprise.
Just based on the rulebook, there was no good reason to think that Martell would be granted immediate eligibility after transferring to Miami from Ohio State. The vast majority of college athlete transfers have to sit a year of competition under NCAA rules, unless they meet one of a few specific exceptions. It made sense in that context that Martell would sit at The U for a year and potentially start in 2020, because he wouldn’t get a waiver for 2019.
But then he did.
The reason goes back to April 2018, when the NCAA’s Division I Council — made up of 40 athletic administrators from across the country, including Miami AD Blake James — approved a change in the way eligibility waivers are granted for non-grad transfers.
Martell’s lawyer was able to use the recent change to his client’s advantage.
The immediate eligibility waiver Martell got wasn’t automatic.
He had to appeal for it just like any other player, but a player will get it granted more often than not. Only a small fraction of college football players transfer (there is no transfer epidemic, and the rate has remained static over time) and even fewer look for the waiver option to get immediate eligibility, per the NCAA’s own research of waivers granted through February 2019:
But these updates to the waiver criteria helped Martell a lot.
If a player’s transfer meets these criteria, a waiver’s much more likely to be approved:
-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
-At the time of transfer to the certifying institution, the student-athlete would have been athletically and academically eligible and in good standing on the team had he or she remained at the previous institution;
-The certifying institution must certify that the student-athlete meets percentage-of degree requirements
-The previous institution’s athletics administration does not oppose the transfer.
The simplest, biggest thing working in Martell’s favor was that Ohio State didn’t put up a fight.
Sources told The Miami Herald that, contrary to what Martell’s lawyer, Travis Leach, initially said, Ohio State’s coaching change from Urban Meyer to Ryan Day wasn’t actually much of a factor in the waiver decision.
In a statement announcing the approval of the waiver, James thanked Ohio State “for their assistance and support throughout the waiver process,” and Leach told The Athletic, “There was no opposition [from Ohio State] and I think that was a big factor.”
Sources to the Herald backed that up by essentially saying that Ohio State made no attempt to bring Martell back once he expressed his intent to transfer. Martell’s camp used that as leverage.
Does the NCAA or Ohio State want to risk potentially getting sued for a quarterback the Buckeyes didn’t even try to keep? They’ve got bigger issues with their slowly mounting pile of legal losses related to amateurism.
But the vagueness of one of the NCAA’s other waiver criteria — the one about the “health, safety and well-being” of the player — seemed to help, too.
The vagueness of that point above was something that Leach, used to his advantage in the waiver process.
Travis Leach, an attorney assisting in the waiver campaign for Tate Martell, who is transferring from Ohio State to Miami, thinks that if an athlete feels negatively affected by his original school, “it should really be the burden of someone else to disprove that.”
It wasn’t within Martell’s control that Ohio State picked up Fields. And who’s the NCAA to tell Martell that his well-being wasn’t affected by that move?
So, is this the start of “college football free agency” or not? We’ll see, but Martell’s case likely doesn’t say a lot either way.
It’s the offseason, so it’s time to break out the red herring that is free agency. High-profile transfers like Martell and Fields skew public sentiment to believe that transfers, and these waivers, are more prevalent than they really are.
Coaches, who are afraid of increased player mobility, often conflate transferring with quitting. In their minds, someone making a business decision is soft when they do it at 20 years old, but somehow not when they’re 45 and offered more money for a different coaching job.
The way Martell got his waiver may not be replicable, because it counts on two big things, one of them being that both schools apparently acted in good faith.
Ohio State and Miami aren’t in the same conference, so the Buckeyes didn’t have much incentive to stand in Martell and Miami’s way — though that didn’t stopped other schools from blocking transfers before the transfer portal came about.
The Buckeyes also were aware that they weren’t just dealing with a young man and his family here. Martell was lawyered up. Not every athlete has the means to get a lawyer, but it’s smart if they can. Martell’s not nearly the first.
Athletes should take advantage while they can, because the NCAA could change the whole equation soon.
The NCAA seems positioned to close this mini-loophole around “well-being” by amending the vague part of the waiver process soon. In February, the NCAA’s Committee for Legislative Relief announced that they’ll be taking a look at the transfer waiver guidelines and want to have changes implemented before the start of the 2019-20 academic year.
The committee is “reviewing current transfer waiver guidelines to make sure they are in line with the membership’s expectations. We do believe attention on a small number of high-profile requests can skew perceptions of the scope of staff and committee review,” its chairwoman said.
If the NCAA makes a change, it may be more difficult for players like Martell to get immediate transfers in the future.