He was college sports' 'Great Emancipator.' Now he sees 'utter chaos' in transfer madness| Opinion

Tom Mars didn’t know much about the inner workings of college sports when he “entered the fray,” as he would say, as a disruptor to the NCAA’s outdated and often draconian restrictions on player transfers that forced them to sit out for a year as a penalty.

By the time his work was finished, Mars — an Arkansas lawyer who had previously worked as Walmart’s general counsel and director of the state police — had become the face of college athlete advocacy. He had so successfully blown holes through the NCAA’s waiver process that administrators approved a universal one-time transfer in April of 2021 rather than subject players and themselves to the bureaucratic morass of thousands of players applying to be eligible right away.

Given that history, you might think Mars would have celebrated last week when the NCAA announced that the Division I Council endorsed an even further liberation of college athletes, essentially allowing unlimited free agency as long as transfers occurred within certain windows on the calendar.

But when I checked in with him this week, Mars — dubbed “The Great Emancipator” by Yahoo! Sports in 2018 — wasn’t celebrating. In fact, he was horrified.

“This is a really, really bad idea,” he said. “That was never my intention to help go from one end of the spectrum to the complete other end of the spectrum. I’m almost apologetic. As a fan, observer, lawyer in college sports, whatever hat I put on, I think I’d rather go back to these chaotic waiver requests and irreconcilable decisions than to deal with what I think is coming down the pike.

"Utter chaos. Is there any higher degree of chaos than utter chaos? Whatever the next level is beyond utter chaos, that’s my prediction, and I don’t think it’ll take very long.”

Mars, perhaps, is the No. 1 person to credit (or blame, as the case may be) for the NCAA’s current helplessness on regulating transfers. It started when he locked horns with Ole Miss on behalf of his friend, former football coach Houston Nutt, who believed he was being unfairly smeared by school officials as they spun a narrative that the school’s NCAA infractions case mostly included violations under his watch, while minimizing the issues under then-coach Hugh Freeze.

Mars’ relentless work to get an apology from Ole Miss resulted in the discovery of unflattering phone calls that forced Freeze to resign in July of 2017. The fallout spilled into several Ole Miss players, like quarterback Shea Patterson and receiver Van Jefferson, transferring out and hiring Mars to help them become eligible right away at new schools, claiming they too had been misled about the severity of the case against Ole Miss and the potential penalties, which ultimately included a postseason ban.

Mars got so good at ramping up the pressure on schools and securing waivers for athletes that he wasn't just an in-demand attorney, he was arguably the most-feared and influential person in college sports for a time.

And it was, in the end, a righteous cause.

Coaches and administrators had for years abused their power in the NCAA rulebook to make life difficult for athletes who wanted to transfer. And when an athlete needed to advocate for themselves to get a waiver, it was a complicated and invasive paperwork process where NCAA staff members had to make decisions that seemed inconsistent or needlessly cruel, because circumstances didn’t fit perfectly into a set of rigid guidelines.

Mars exposed all of that as a waste of time and resources, helping restore fairness to a bad process.

We all know the counterarguments about how difficult it is for coaches to manage rosters and whether we’re risking a culture where college athletes run away at the first sign of adversity.

But on balance, there were far more reasons why allowing a one-time free transfer made sense.

Whether an athlete needs to move closer to a sick parent or the coach they wanted to play for gets fired, or they just didn’t make a good college choice for whatever reason when they were 18, allowing them one mulligan made sense. It was the right thing to do.

But when even a strong advocate for athletes like Mars warns that there’s danger in expanding that to an unlimited, unchecked right, the NCAA would be wise to listen.

“As passionate as I’ve been about freedom for college athletes, I just don’t think this is sustainable,” Mars said. “There’s no serious organized sports that generate any revenue in the world that doesn’t have some limitation on transfers, some guardrails. I don’t know if you can even do that in pee wee football.”

Mars is right. Forget the headaches that a totally unchecked, unregulated free agency environment will cause coaches — they make millions for the trouble — but at some point, it becomes detrimental to the product when players can change schools at will every year with no consequence at all.

Some of the most extreme advocates will argue that college athletes should have the same rights as regular students, who are able to transfer as many times as they want and continue their studies and extracurricular activities without interruption. That’s a valid point of view, too, but it also underscores why collective bargaining is the only real way to solve these issues.

The truth is, college athletes are not 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 them apart in court, conference commissioners and NCAA officials should embrace negotiating with a players' union as a way to actually instill order and regain some control of a system that is adrift on issues like transfers and how to regulate name, image and likeness.

“The straightest line, the most logical solution is collective bargaining, and if we weren’t talking about the NCAA, I’d assume that’s the path they’d take,” Mars said. “But based on NCAA history and their resistance to anything that requires them to yield any power to anybody, I don’t see them going down that path. They’re in a box canyon right now with no way out.”

Mars doesn't need to apologize for his role in guiding the NCAA to where it is today on transfer madness. He did his job, he did it well and left the NCAA a blueprint for a structure that made sense.

If even Mars is screaming that unlimited transfers is going too far, maybe administrators should listen.

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College athlete advocate blew up NCAA transfer system, sees chaos now