This was only a matter of time.
Santino Marchiol had no difficulty deciding in June that he needed to leave Texas A&M. The hard choice was how to get his football career moving as quickly as possible at the highest level possible.
A four-star linebacker who enrolled at College Station in January 2017, he was hopeful even after his redshirt season ended with Kevin Sumlin’s firing and Jimbo Fisher’s arrival. Backed by a 10-year, $75 million contract, Fisher had vowed to make a culture change that would lift the Aggies into college football’s elite.
Over the next several months, however, Marchiol said he witnessed behavior that made him uncomfortable, including, he asserts, an assistant coach giving him cash to host top recruits on”unofficial” visits. Marchiol also said he and other players were evaluated in June practice sessions that were allegedly voluntary but were operated and observed outside the NCAA rule book…
… Convinced that he needed a fresh start, Marchiol faced a choice if he was going to play at another top-level school: He could transfer quietly and per NCAA rules sit out a year before returning to the field, but that would mean a lost year of college eligibility because he already had redshirted a season. Or he could seek a waiver from the NCAA, which this year approved a policy change that allows transfers to play immediately if there were “documented mitigating circumstances that are outside student-athlete’s control and directly impact the health, safety and well-being of the student-athlete.”
The change to the transfer rule was implemented in May to address the eligibility of six former Mississippi players, who said they were misled during their recruitment about the seriousness of the NCAA case against then-coach Hugh Freeze’s staff. The case resulted in penalties against the football program, including a one-year bowl ban on top of the one-year ban the school imposed on itself.
In the Ole Miss case, the players were granted waivers long after the school had been sanctioned. Marchiol’s case presents a new possibility — that athletes could, in applying for a waiver, include allegations of improprieties within their former athletic program.
It’s the perfect storm. A player wanting to transfer to a specific school is nothing new, of course, nor is his old school blocking the move. What’s new is the change in the NCAA waiver process and how that’s gone down in the past few months.
Add to that the presence of Thomas Mars, whose efforts led to the downfall of Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss, and Jimbo Fisher’s predecessor, who’s now at Arizona, where Marchiol wants to transfer, clearly not caring about sticking it to his old employer, and here we are.
If you wonder what I mean about Arizona, notice how Mars has proceeded with this.
It’s quite possible Marchiol’s account might otherwise not have come to light. He did not contact the NCAA. He included the allegations as part of a statement he sent to the compliance office at Arizona, where Sumlin is the coach and Marchiol is enrolled and practicing with the football team, in his request for an NCAA waiver that would allow him to play instead of sitting out the upcoming season.
So it’s Arizona that’s pulled the NCAA into the deal.
Marchiol’s attorney, Thomas Mars of the Arkansas-based law firm Friday, Eldredge & Clark, allowed USA TODAY Sports to view a copy of that statement before its submission to Arizona. Mars declined further comment and referenced a section of NCAA bylaws that deals with infractions and investigations, suggesting the information has subsequently drawn the interest of NCAA investigators.
“At this time, commenting beyond what I’ve already said about the waiver process would appear to violate Article 19 of the NCAA bylaws,” Mars said. “Therefore, I won’t be able to answer any questions about the specific grounds for the waiver.”
NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said the association does not comment on current, pending or potential cases.
Texas A&M provided a statement that read: “Texas A&M Athletics takes these allegations seriously, and we are reviewing the situation with the NCAA and the SEC Office.”
(Hugh Freeze reads this, smiles ruefully, shakes his head and mutters, “dumbasses”.)
And now, it’s in the media, which makes it even harder for Texas A&M to backtrack.
Like I said, there’s an air of inevitability to all this.
“Transfer restrictions have been lessened, but I don’t think it’s gone far enough” said B. David Ridpath, an associate professor of sport management at Ohio University and frequent NCAA critic. “If it’s true what he’s saying, I think it’s great. Players are getting smarter, much more savvy. They realize even more than you and I that people are making billions here and we’re not getting a whole heck of a lot and now they’re telling me I can’t even transfer and be immediately eligible? I’d be singing like a bird.”
It’s getting a lot harder to control kids than it used to be, that’s for sure. Ironically, the NCAA has helped make that possible here. Notice that, as you read the allegations, Marchiol has confessed to an NCAA violation of his own. But because he presumably has come clean in the course of reporting what he claims are NCAA violations by TAMU, he won’t suffer any penalties as a result.
It’s quite the between a rock and a hard place situation for the school and Jimbo Fisher, as Michael McCann explains.
… A player who transfers to another school and wants to play immediately might no longer worry about his or her reputation on the previous campus. Such a player is thus less likely to worry about the stigmatic and reputational consequences of telling the NCAA the truth about misconduct that occurred at the previous school and sharing every and all details about such wrongdoing. In fact, the player stands to gain from relaying those details: the player is more likely to be granted a waiver.
Yet for that same reason, the school that lost the transfer player can logically insist that the transferred student possessed a clear conflict of interest that undermined his or her credibility. After all, the worse the player’s depiction of the prior school, the more likely the player will receive a waiver. In addition, a player who divulges especially damaging information could become very useful to the NCAA and its investigators.
To rebut the claims of an aggrieved former player, the school could assert that the allegations are intentionally false or exaggerative, and unsupported by evidence. Along those lines, the school could maintain that the player transferred for a reason that had nothing to do with school misconduct—he or she was simply not good enough to play. Thus, the school might portray the player as having an axe to grind due to lack of playing time or personal differences with the coach and teammates.
Still, the school that loses the player may need to provide statements and evidence—and use up the finite time of coaches, players and administrators—in order to satisfy NCAA requests related to the player’s allegations. Also, while in the theory a school could sue a former student for defamation if the student lies about the school in reputation-harming ways, the reality of doing so is hardly practical. Further, even a successful defamation lawsuit suit would take months, if not years, to play out and would thus not provide the school with near-term relief. Stated differently, a prospective transfer player would seem to possess a good deal of leverage.
Keep in mind it’s highly unlikely that Mars decided to go nuclear from the get go. Any competent lawyer is going to give the school a chance to work out a solution behind closed doors. Indeed, that’s what Mars tried to do with the Houston Nutt situation, only to be rebuffed. Yet here we are again.
In the cold light of day, this may all seem painfully obvious in hindsight, but when you’ve been accustomed to getting your own way bullying kids who seek waivers, it’s hard to see the car wreck coming until you’re right on top of it. It’s out there now, though. Either schools agree to liberalize the transfer process further, or you can expect to see more of this coming down the turnpike.
I imagine there are very few football programs out there that are totally pure of heart. If I’m your average head coach or athletic director at your typical P5 program, I’m probably shitting a few bricks this morning. And if I’m Ed Orgeron, I’m hoping like hell Justin McMillan doesn’t have a change of heart.
UPDATE: When in doubt…
Not sure how long that’ll work, though.