Tom Mars didn’t know much about the inner workings of college sports when he “entered the fray,” as he put it, defying the NCAA’s old and often strict restrictions on player transfers that forced them to sit out a year. As a penalty.
By the time his work was done, Mars — an Arkansas attorney who previously served as Walmart’s general counsel and state police director — had become the face of college athlete advocacy. He plowed through the NCAA’s waiver process so successfully that administrators approved a universal one-time transfer in April of 2021 in lieu of subject players, and thousands of players immediately applied to become eligible.
Given that history, you might think Mars celebrated last week when the NCAA announced that the Division I council had endorsed further emancipation of college athletes, allowing unrestricted free agency as long as transfers occurred during certain windows on the calendar.
But when I checked in with him this week, Mars — dubbed “The Great Redeemer” by Yahoo! Sports in 2018 — not celebrating. In fact, he was scared.
“It’s a really bad idea,” he said. “I don’t mean to help go from one end of the spectrum to the other end of the spectrum. I’m almost apologetic. As a fan, as an observer, as an advocate in college sports, whatever hat I wear, I want to go back to these chaotic waiver requests and irreparable decisions.
“Extreme chaos. Is there anything more chaos than complete chaos? The next level is beyond any chaos, that’s my guess, and I don’t think it will take long.”
Mars is, perhaps, the No. 1 person who can be credited (or blamed) for the NCAA’s current helplessness in regulating transfers. It began when he locked horns with Ole Miss on behalf of his friend, former football coach Houston Nutt, who believed he was unfairly vilified by school officials after he brought up a story about the school’s NCAA violations case largely under his watch. Alleviating problems under then-coach Hugh Freeze.
Freeze resigned in July 2017 as a result of Marrs’ relentless work to secure a pardon from Ole Miss. Several Ole Miss players transferred and transferred this fall, including quarterback Shea Patterson and receiver Van Jefferson, and hiring Mars to help them immediately qualify at new schools, claiming they were also misled about the seriousness of the case against Ole Miss and potential penalties, including an eventual postseason ban. .
Mars was so good at putting pressure on schools and getting waivers for athletes that he wasn’t just an in-demand attorney, he was at one time one of the most feared and influential figures in college sports.
And that, in the end, is a just cause.
Coaches and administrators have abused their power in the NCAA rulebook for years to make life difficult for players who want to transfer. And when a player needs to justify themselves in order to get a waiver, it’s a complicated and cumbersome paperwork process where NCAA staff have to make inconsistent or unnecessarily cruel decisions because the circumstances don’t fit neatly into a set of strict guidelines. .
Mars exposes all the waste of time and resources, helping to restore fairness to the evil process.
We all know how difficult it is for coaches to manage rosters and whether we risk a culture where college athletes flee at the first sign of adversity.
But on balance, there are far more reasons why allowing a one-time free transfer makes sense.
Whether an athlete needs to move in with an ailing parent or the coach they wanted to play for fired, or they didn’t make a good college choice at age 18 for whatever reason, allowing them a mulligan makes sense. It’s the right thing to do.
But when even a staunch advocate for athletes like Mars warned of the danger in expanding that to an unfettered, unchecked right, the NCAA would be wise to listen.
“While I’m passionate about freedom for college athletes, I don’t think it’s sustainable,” Mars said. “Severe organized sports that don’t have some limit on turnovers, some guardrails don’t generate any revenue in the world. I don’t know if you can do the same in pee wee football.
Mars is right. Forget the headaches a completely unchecked, unregulated free agency environment causes coaches — they make millions for the trouble — but at some point, it becomes detrimental to production when players can switch schools at will every year with no consequence.
Most ardent advocates argue that college athletes should have the same rights as regular students, be able to transfer as many times as they want, and continue their studies and extracurricular activities without interruption. This is a valid point of view, but it also emphasizes that collective bargaining is the only real way to solve these problems.
The truth is, college athletes aren’t exactly like every other student on campus. They are part of a multi-billion dollar entertainment enterprise. And instead of making policy out of fear that people like Mars will tear it apart in court, conference commissioners and NCAA officials should embrace negotiating with the players’ union to actually bring order and regain some control over a system. Issues such as transfers and how to control name, image and likeness.
“The simplest path, the most logical solution is collective bargaining, and if we’re not talking about the NCAA, I think that’s the path they’re going to take,” Mars said. “But based on the history of the NCAA and their resistance to anything that requires giving anybody any power, I don’t see them going down that road. They’re in Box Canyon now with no way out.
Mars doesn’t need to apologize for his role in guiding the NCAA to where it is today on the transfer frenzy. He did his job, he did it well, and he left a blueprint for a meaningful structure for the NCAA.
If even Mars is screaming that unlimited transfers are going too far, managers should listen.
Follow USA TODAY Sports Dan Wolken on Twitter @danvolken.