Fate of Big Ten stars rests in NCAA's hands

Minnesota star wide receiver Rashod Bateman has returned to school and enrolled in full-time classes after declaring for the draft early in August and signing with an agent. Two Ohio State stars, Shaun Wade and Wyatt Davis, have announced their intention to return to play after declaring they’d be going pro. So did Michigan star tackle Jalen Mayfield.

There are Big Ten stars reportedly pondering the same in the wake of the league’s reversal last week, Penn State’s Micah Parsons and Purdue’s Rondale Moore among them. Some Pac-12 stars are exploring the same, as that league is expected on Thursday to decide if and when it will return to the field this fall.

All of this means a fascinating set of test cases for the NCAA, the beleaguered organization that enforces many of the rules of college football yet doesn’t have much impact on how the sport is run.

Suddenly, the NCAA finds itself lording over the fate of some of the college football’s biggest stars, which means it inherently controls the fate of some of the country’s most powerful football programs. It’s a fascinating staredown between the NCAA’s generally stringent agent rules and the unprecedented circumstances of this pandemic. After all, some of the players — although not all — left for the NFL after conferences announced their postponements this fall.

What looms for the NCAA will be an interesting litmus test for a trait the organization has slowly developed over the years — empathy.

“I would hope that they would be [empathetic] considering the circumstances,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told Yahoo Sports. “I’d hope that they’d be flexible and understand the circumstances are unique.”

Will Minnesota's Rashod Bateman, who opted out of the 2020 season, be able to return to play in the Big Ten's schedule? (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images)

The general feeling around college athletics is that the NCAA isn’t going to prevent these star athletes from playing. But the organization hasn’t issued any type of blanket waiver, as the players will instead be relying on the Student Athlete Reinstatement process to get their eligibility back. (Smith said that in the case of Davis, the star Ohio State offensive lineman, for example, he’d be “shocked” if he’s not reinstated. Davis’s paperwork is being processed.)  

That reinstatement process is going to be handled on a case-by-case basis and the NCAA by reputation isn’t the fastest-moving organization. When asked for comment, the NCAA pointed back to the individual schools handling the process for specific players. The question around college athletics has narrowed to what often happens in high-profile cases with the NCAA — will they rule in favor of the athlete on their own or be bullied into that decision through public criticism?

“It seems that sometimes the NCAA structure has to be pulled to these results by outside forces and events as opposed to approaching the results or seeking the results on their own,” said Stu Brown, an attorney with a long history handling cases involving the NCAA. “Hopefully that approach has changed a little bit as a result of the unique situation.”

Attorney Tom Mars has been a vocal proponent of player eligibility in transfer cases over the past three years. He helped get Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson eligible after transferring from Ole Miss, one of his highest-profile eligibility wins.

In a phone interview on Sunday, Mars admitted he had little direct insight into how the NCAA will handle these cases. He said the intelligence he’d gathered was indirect after talking to athletic officials at three schools with potential cases.

Mars said the second-hand intelligence he’s gathered predicted that the NCAA would likely end up ruling in the players’ favor. But he added that the NCAA gave indications to the schools that it wouldn’t be handling them as a group. (The NCAA’s case-by-case notion backs this up.)

Mars called on NCAA president Mark Emmert to pass a “special piece of legislation that’s specific to this pandemic” that would allow the players to return.

“There are some situations in life where large organizations need to be led from the top,” Mars said. “What a great opportunity for the NCAA to demonstrate that for Mark Emmert and his organization that the priority is the best interest of student-athletes. They need to do something fast, and the right thing in my opinion.”

The specific rule in play here is 12.3.1 from the NCAA rule book. “An individual shall be ineligible for participation in an intercollegiate sport if he or she has agreed (orally or in writing) to be represented by an agent for the purpose of marketing his or her athletics ability or reputation in that sport.”

NCAA bylaw 12.3.1 states "An individual shall be ineligible for participation in an intercollegiate sport if he or she has agreed (orally or in writing) to be represented by an agent."

The rule goes on to dive into benefits from agents. And that will likely come into play with those who signed, as the first opt-out began with Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley on July 29. Farley is not coming back to Tech, but he began a trend that saw nearly two dozen players turn pro. Many signed with agents and scattered to training facilities around the country.

Under normal circumstances, that would mean that any player who has signed with an agent would have to pay back that money for meals, training and cash floated to them.

There is recent precedent for allowing players back who’ve signed with agents. Yahoo’s Eric Edholm detailed the story of Arizona State punter Matt Turk, who was reportedly allowed back to college after signing with an agent and taking part in the NFL combine because COVID-19 limited his ability to showcase him as a prospect.

Still, predicting how the NCAA will interpret rules is always somewhat of a mystery. As one Big Ten administrative source told Yahoo of the flurry of potential opt-ins: “I have no way to handicap this thing. It’s a battle that’s never been fought before.”

The case of Minnesota’s Bateman, the top returning receiver in the Big Ten, will be an interesting one. He was the league’s first opt-out on Aug. 3 and signed with an agent. Since the news of Big Ten’s reversal emerged last week, he’s returned to campus and begun practicing again. The school is still awaiting word on whether he can play in the opener against Michigan.

Bateman’s decision came before the Big Ten announced it would be postponing the 2020 season on Aug. 11, and also before the league came out eight days later and publicly said the decision wouldn’t be revisited. But it also came before the league indicated specific safety protocols, and Bateman said at the time that “health and safety” was his primary reason for the decision.

Mars said there’s a “good argument” for players like Bateman and Penn State’s Parsons, who opted out on Aug. 4. But Mars is pushing for the NCAA to look beyond the letter of the law here.  

“It seems to me that this situation just cries out for a temporary change of attitude…” Mars said, “where bureaucracy is not the most important thing.”

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