Russo: Time to embrace “free agency” in college football
For all the griping from coaches and administrators about the so-called transfer epidemic in college sports, the increased movement of players has done more good than harm for the people who are supposed to matter most: The Players.
Just look at the front row Saturday night when the Heisman Trophy is handed out in New York. All three quarterbacks up for the award — LSU’s Joe Burrow, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and Ohio State’s Justin Fields — transferred to their current schools. They not only blossomed as players, they developed as people.
Don’t try telling any of them they took the easy way out by switching schools.
“We’ve all had obviously different situations, but I think perseverance and pushing though adversity is a commonality in this,” Burrow said.
Burrow, Hurts Fields and Ohio State defensive end Chase Young met briefly Friday with the media at a hotel across the street from the theater where the Heisman will be presented.
Burrow is the heavy favorite to win. If he does, that will make it three consecutive years the Heisman will go to a transfer quarterback, following Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.
Fretting about free agency coming to college football is a waste of time. It’s here. And it’s not hurting anybody.
The NCAA has taken steps in recent years to give athletes more freedom to transfer while also allowing for greater opportunity to become immediately eligibility. That is a good thing, but nothing comes without unintended consequences. And, of course, more needs to be done.
Burrow and Hurts were graduate transfers, taking advantage of a rule that has been in place for more than a decade that allows athletes with a degree to switch schools without sitting out a season.
Burrow left Ohio State after three seasons as a lightly used reserve. Injuries and an abundance of talent on the roster kept him from winning a starting job. The Ohio native landed at LSU last year with two seasons of eligibility left.
“It was a gut-wrenching decision for me. One that I’m glad that I made, but it was really tough for me and my family,” Burrow said.
Hurts became a starter and a star at Alabama as a freshman, leading the Tide to the national championship game his first two seasons before losing the job to Tua Tagovailoa.
Hurts decided to stay with the Crimson Tide last year, and he was praised for his selflessness. But his decision to stay was at least as beneficial to Alabama as it was to him. There is an SEC championship trophy in in Tuscaloosa the Crimson Tide probably would not have had Hurts not been there to come off the bench when Tagovailoa was injured in the conference title game last year.
“You just never know what life brings. You just got to keep your faith. Trust God. Know your why. Know why you do what you do,” Hurts said. “At the end of the day, external factors … they never matter. It’s about what you want to accomplish.”
Fields left Georgia after one season of being used sporadically as Jake Fromm’s backup.
“It was kind of leap of faith because before I transferred I’d never been to Ohio. I’d never visited Ohio State. It was a scary moment in my life,” Fields said.
The waiver process used by Fields to become immediately eligible has benefited some athletes, but been a source of consternation for others. Not everyone get a waiver from the NCAA. When they don’t, the NCAA gets slammed for being inconsistent or heartless or biased. The validity of requests that have been granted is questioned.
That’s not fair to someone such as Fields, who has not revealed all that went into his waiver request or the full circumstances regarding his decision to leave Georgia. There has been speculation he cited an incident involving a Georgia student directing a racial slur at him during a game as part of the reason he needed to leave.
What does it matter? Why should Fields have to justify to anyone making the decision that was best for himself, no different than what Hurts and Burrow did?
Fields said his advice for any player considering making a move would be to tune out the critics.
“At the end of the day they don’t know what you’ve been through. Whatever you feel that’s best for you and what’s best for you in the future, I would say do,” Fields said.
Why even have a waiver process that creates winners and losers and resentment?
“It’s a horrible situation,” said Tom Mars, an attorney who has worked with Fields and other college athletes on eligibility issues.
“Every rationale for making transferring student-athletes sit out a year has now been thoroughly discredited, leaving only a few head coaches making millions of dollars to whine about roster management,” Mars said.
A solution is obvious. In some NCAA sports, athletes are allowed to transfer one time as an undergraduate without sitting out, but not in high-profile sports such as football and basketball.
The time has come to make that the standard in all sports.
Who is it going to hurt?