When the NCAA approved Miami quarterback Tate Martell’s waiver for immediate eligibility on Tuesday afternoon, the Hurricanes got a major boost as they begin spring practice. One of the bleakest Power 5 quarterback situations from a year ago—Malik Rosier and N’Kosi Perry split time, but neither proved to be effective—now has a former five-star recruit with three years of eligibility remaining in place to start the 2019 season.
In a year or two, though, that might all be a footnote, no matter how good Martell might make Manny Diaz’s first Hurricanes team next fall. When the NCAA ruled Martell eligible for 2019, it opened the floodgates for more transfer cases that resemble his, in which players enrolled at one school see a better opportunity to play at another and argue that they should be allowed to transfer and play immediately. That’s not to simplify Martell’s appeal, which was expected to focus on a number of factors, including last season’s coaching staff turmoil in Columbus in what would be Urban Meyer’s final year on the sidelines. (In fact, CBS Sports reported in February that Martell had considered using Meyer’s three-game suspension as part of an appeal to transfer before last season; if so, that lends credence to the argument that his transfer hinged on more than just playing time.)
Still, Martell’s motivations weren’t hard to trace. Justin Fields, a former five-star recruit who was Georgia’s freshman backup last year, decided to transfer to Ohio State this winter. Fields requested a waiver for immediate eligibility based on an incident in which a Bulldogs baseball player yelled a racial slur in reference to him during a game, and upon arrival in Columbus he was cleared to compete immediately—which made Martell’s long-awaited shot at the Buckeyes’ starting job a longer one. Almost immediately, he announced his intention to transfer.
Any extenuating circumstances named in Martell’s appeal should take a backseat to that domino effect. At Ohio State, Martell thought he had a good shot to start. Then, he didn’t. So he decided to transfer. In college football, playing time trumps nearly every other extenuating circumstance, especially at the quarterback position, where lost jobs aren’t easily earned back and backup reps are close to nil. Martell transferred because he didn’t want to ride the bench his entire college career. The NCAA on Tuesday said he should get to show what he can do sooner, as soon as next fall. It gave Martell agency, just as it gave Fields agency, just as it did Shea Patterson a year ago and dozens of players before him. But Martell’s case those players arguments are propped up by little else than the desire to play, to control their careers in a system where amateurism has sapped so much of their power.
Sure, Martell’s case could be a one-off situation in which the NCAA was sold on the hardship of a truly bizarre five-month stretch that included a head coach’s suspension and subsequent retirement—but the odds of that seem slim at best. It’s more likely that college football just moved one small step closer to a world in which players can jump to a new school and play immediately for any reason they want, rendering irrelevant the current requirement of “documented mitigating circumstances that are outside the student-athlete’s control and directly impact the health, safety and well-being of the student-athlete.”
That world may wreak havoc on certain teams’ depth, or chip away at the continuity and institutional knowledge that coaches value. But it also would give young men who are earning their schools millions of dollars of profit and not seeing a penny of it an extra iota of control. It could allow them to better position themselves for NFL careers, or at least give them the chance to take their futures into their own hands, even if those moves backfire.
As more and more players—especially quarterbacks—enter the transfer portal after each season, the ripple effect of the Martell ruling will be apparent soon. Maybe by the end of this spring, but certainly by next fall, it will be clear which cases dissatisfied players should use as justification to file their own eligibility appeals. In recent years, the question has been whether Player X will become eligible. Soon, it might shift: When will Player X stop having to file an appeal at all? It costs money to hire representation to craft arguments and file appeals—which is all well and good for top players like Fields and Martell, with the name recognition and resources to do so. But what about the backup linebackers and spurned right tackles? They won’t be as numerous as the hotshot quarterbacks, but they’re watching too, waiting for the NCAA to own up to the control it’s slowly ceding.