BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech’s compliance department is going it alone in offensive lineman Brock Hoffman’s waiver case.
After the incoming Coastal Carolina’s medical family hardship waiver request was denied on April 23, Hoffman’s family sought out help from Arkansas-based attorney Thomas Mars in appealing the decision. Mars has become known as a specialist in NCAA eligibility cases.
The attorney remains optimistic about Hoffman’s chances, but Mars won’t be part of the process after Tech’s compliance department politely declined his help.
“There’s a first time for everything, and this just happened to be the first time I wasn't able to add any value to the process,” Mars said. “There’s nothing more to it than that. I assume that Virginia Tech felt confident that they had everything under control and just didn’t need any help.”
The NCAA rules require non-graduate transfer players to sit out a year if they go to another FBS school unless a waiver is granted.
Mars made headlines in recent years helping Justin Fields and Shea Patterson gain immediate eligibility. He’s helped “more than a few” student-athletes — in a recent interview he said he stopped counting at 50 — as a consultant.
“My primary role, which fits well with my experience as a trial lawyer and advocate, usually involves strategy decisions, the development of evidence, and drafting the written statements and arguments for why the student-athletes deserves a waiver,” Mars said. “Those written materials are much like what lawyers file in court when representing a client.”
While everything dealing with transfer goes through a school’s compliance department on behalf of the athlete, Mars essentially becomes an “adjunct member of that team (compliance department)” when asked to consult.
It’s a role he’s taking on for Illinois in a similar medical family hardship waiver case involving tight end Luke Ford. Ford is transferring to Illinois from Georgia to be closer to his home in Carterville, Illinois and ailing grandfather.
Ford’s waiver request was denied on April 24, a day after Hoffman’s.
While Mars is working with Illinois, the only contact Mars said he had with Virginia Tech’s compliance department was on May 3 when he received what he described as a courtesy call at the behest of the Hoffman family.
Hoffman applied for a medical family hardship waiver in March to gain immediate eligibility at Virginia Tech to be closer to his home in Statesville, North Carolina. Hoffman’s mother Stephanie Hoffman is dealing with complications from surgery she had in early 2017 to remove an acoustic neuroma (a non-cancerous brain tumor).
“My wife is completely deaf in her left ear,” Brian Hoffman said, in an interview with The Roanoke Times at the end of April. “She can’t see out of her left eye. All that is after the surgery.”
According to the Hoffman family, the NCAA cited two main reasons in denying the appeal — Hoffman’s house fell five miles outside the 100-mile radius allowed for medical hardship waivers and his mother’s condition has improved since her surgery in 2017.
While the NCAA made changes to loosen the transfer process guidelines for Division 1 athletes, those don’t apply for medical hardship waivers. One of Hoffman’s options is to apply for a general waiver (the same one Fields and Patterson applied for and were granted).
The previous standard required student-athletes seeking a general waiver to prove egregious behavior by their previous school. Student-athletes now just have to show “mitigating circumstances” outside the student-athlete's control.
Coastal Carolina coach Joe Moglia, who recruited Hoffman, stepped down in January, but applying for a general waiver remains Plan B for the Hoffman family.
Virginia Tech plans to appeal the medical hardship waiver decision first. According to a source with knowledge of the situation, Virginia Tech is expected to officially file an appeal in the next two weeks.
Mars spent time gathering information in support of Hoffman’s appeal after the family reached out to him. The attorney found a study from the Department of Transportation that showed 13% of the country’s workforce commutes more than 100 miles to work everyday.
He said the data raises questions “about the logic and reasonableness of the 100-mile requirement” for the NCAA family hardship rule.
The 100-mile radius was put into place as part of a series of rule changes to the medical hardship waiver in 2012. Mars “carefully researched” those changes and suggested measuring the distance in air miles or by nearest airport to the other nearest airport.
“There is nothing in the manual or legislative guidelines that defines how you measure the distance,” Mars said.
In supporting Hoffman's case, Mars also intended to lean heavily on the underlying goal of the NCAA’s more recent transfer rule changes.
“The mitigating circumstances rule adopted a year ago this week was intended to give the staff discretion to grant waivers where the student-athlete’s circumstances justified a waiver based on principles of fairness and common sense," Mars said. "I can’t think of a better example than Brock’s situation where granting a waiver is the only possible outcome that’s consistent with fairness and common sense.”
It’s something that ACC commissioner John Swofford echoed on Thursday when commenting to The Roanoke Times about the NCAA’s transfer rules.
Swofford declined comment on Hoffman’s specific situation — the commissioner didn’t know all the exact details, but was generally aware of Hoffman’s case — but hopes the NCAA uses “fairness” as the guiding principle in all transfer cases.
It’s part of the reason why Swofford is happy with the changes the NCAA made to the transfer rules last year.
“We are in an age where there’s a lot of emphasis on students, on athletes and what’s fair and what’s right,” Swofford said. “I think it’s a very appropriate subject matter for us to be dealing and addressing. Whether we got everything exactly right? I’m not sure, but I think we are close.”