Wiedmer: NCAA allowing Justin Fields to play immediately at Ohio State would be egregious behavior

Wiedmer: NCAA allowing Justin Fields to play immediately at Ohio State would be egregious behavior

January 8th, 2019 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Georgia quarterback Justin Fields exits Sanford Stadium after the conclusion of the Bulldogs' game against Austin Peay on Sept. 1.

Photo by Kristin Bradshaw/Georgia

Until a year ago today rolled into Jan. 9, it would have been hard to find a giddier college football fan base than those folks yelling for the Georgia Bulldogs.

For to go back to Jan. 8, 2018, was to find the Dawgs not only facing Alabama in the College Football Playoff title game inside Atlanta's shiny new Mercedes-Benz Stadium but also leading the Crimson Tide for much of the evening. And if all that wasn't enough to excite Bulldog Nation, quarterback Justin Fields — whom ESPN ranked the nation's top prep prospect — was heading for Athens, all but certain to challenge incumbent starter Jake Fromm in much the way Fromm had challenged and ultimately beaten out Jacob Eason.

In fact, when then-Bama freshman Tua Tagovailoa came off the bench in the second half of the national championship game to rally the Tide from a 13-0 halftime hole, a lot of Georgia fans probably thought Fields was capable of delivering similar comebacks for the Dawgs.

Alas, nothing since has worked out quite as it appeared it would.

First, third-year coach Kirby Smart saw a good portion of his honeymoon with Bulldog Nation fade away with his ill-timed fake punt in this year's SEC title game. Alabama sniffed it out, then turned that promising field position into a 35-28 victory won from a 28-14 hole.

To make that moment worse, the insertion of Fields on that fake punt reportedly tipped off the Bama coaching staff to the call.

Soon after that began the rumors that Fields was going to transfer to Ohio State, which came to pass shortly after Georgia's listless Sugar Bowl loss to Texas. There also are the somewhat unexpected departures of underclassmen Elijah Holyfield, Isaac Nauta, Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley to the NFL draft. Beyond that, rumors are rampant that offensive coordinator Jim Chaney soon will return to that same position at Tennessee.

Suddenly that blindingly bright future that Bulldog Nation anticipated last Jan. 8 doesn't look so certain anymore.

What should be certain is that Fields, a true freshman, should have to sit out next season at Ohio State. But even that is now being called into question with news that he may challenge for instant eligibility on the rather questionable grounds that he was the victim of "egregious behavior" during his time in Athens.

The behavior expected to be cited by Fields and his legal team centers on an incident at September's Tennessee-Georgia game inside Georgia's Sanford Stadium. During that game a Bulldogs baseball player allegedly shouted racial slurs about Fields. That player later apologized via Twitter and the school booted him from the baseball squad.

But Fields is now expected to use the incident as grounds for immediate eligibility under an NCAA waiver that grants such requests on the basis of, according to Yahoo! Sports, "assertions of egregious behavior by a staff member or student at the previous institution."

We should all be able to agree that any racial slur is deplorable and inexcusable. But by all accounts, this was a single incident that the university handled with swift discipline.

There is apparently zero evidence that there was a pattern of such behavior, that Fields was either physically or verbally threatened on multiple occasions in a way that would understandably encourage him to escape the situation.

In fact, when Fields posted on social media that he was leaving the Bulldogs for the Buckeyes, he wrote the following words: "My time at the University of Georgia has given me the opportunity to refine my skills under great coaches and to play with incredibly talented teammates who've been like brothers to me.

"I'll miss my teammates more than they'll ever know, and I wish them all the best as they get ready for another great season. I hope that the bonds we've developed this past year will never be broken by where we choose to play football and where we end up after college."

Does that sound like a guy desperate to escape egregious behavior? Not a single reference to something along the lines of "Unfortunately, the actions of a few have made me believe I need a fresh start in a different environment."

No, it's all about brotherhood and bonds he hopes will never be broken. Sounds like a pretty good few months to me, wouldn't you agree? Beyond that, and not to sound like a grumpy old man here, but if a single slur delivered by a single person in a crowd of 90,000 can rattle Fields that much, how's he going to handle facing Michigan in the Big House?

One other point: What's to keep every future athlete who's unhappy with his college choice from planting a friend in a crowd to shout obscenities at him or her, or bombard his Twitter account with vile messages? Hear insults, will transfer. Automatically.

But as the egregious academic behavior of the University of North Carolina proved, if you arm yourself with enough good lawyers, the NCAA most often caves these days. It's almost as if N-C-A-A now stands for No Consequences Anymore (for) Anything.

Fields has every right to transfer. The NCAA has a responsibility to make him sit out a year for that decision, much as it's done in the past for almost every non-graduate transfer without a truly remarkable set of circumstances. To rule otherwise is to invite a 24/7 waiver wire that will allow every kid who's ever been harshly yelled at by a coach or trashed on social media to transfer without penalty.

And allowing that to happen would be egregious behavior indeed for an organization that's supposed to represent accountability and responsibility rather than capitulation and resignation.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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