Rashod Bateman opted out of the 2020 college football season back on Aug. 4 — citing uncertainty about playing safely amid the coronavirus pandemic. He declared for the 2021 NFL draft and signed with an agent.
But he didn’t fully let go of the Gophers.
“I would do anything to be able to play football for [coach P.J. Fleck] again, alongside my teammates and bring back a Big Ten championship to the Twin Cities,” Bateman said in his goodbye video.
Well, he’s about to make good on that promise.
The star receiver is going to try to play, now that the Big Ten reinstated its season with daily COVID-19 testing for players and a nine-game schedule starting Oct. 23-24. The conference said Friday it will reveal the schedule Saturday during “Big Noon Kickoff,” which starts at 9 a.m. on Ch. 9.
Bateman initially opted out before the Big Ten canceled all fall sports Aug. 11.
In a statement, Fleck confirmed Bateman is enrolled at the university for fall semester and has “been granted a waiver to practice with the team, which he did [Friday].” But how Bateman will earn clearance to compete is another matter.
The reigning Big Ten Receiver of the Year signed with agent Blake Baratz of IFA. That terminates a player’s college eligibility. But depending on what was exchanged, Bateman and the Gophers must work through the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Reinstatement process to regain his eligibility.
Baratz said that in the past two days he provided the Gophers and the NCAA with information, including what the agency provided Bateman. IFA advanced Bateman some money, including paying for his housing, rental car and training the past six weeks.
Bateman will probably have to pay that back, Baratz said, though he acknowledged this is a first for him, and he’s not even sure what the process entails or how long it will take.
The NCAA handles those requests case by case, though there are several players nationally in a similar position. Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade opted out Sept. 14 and also hired an agent, though he never signed official paperwork. Now Wade wants to play for the Buckeyes. Teammate Wyatt Davis also opted out last week, and Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told Yahoo Sports he’d be “shocked” if the NCAA didn’t approve Davis’ request to compete.
“There’s a lot of things that [are] involved in that after somebody declares and what they’ve actually taken and things that they’ve done as they’ve gone forward with their agency,” Fleck said Thursday on the Big Ten Network, adding one of his first text messages after he learned of the uncanceled season was from Bateman.
There is some precedent for reinstating football players. Arizona State punter Michael Turk hired an agent and went through the 2020 NFL combine and draft, though he never signed with a team. The NCAA let him return with both his remaining years of eligibility partly because the pandemic limited his ability to showcase his skill, since pro days and team workouts shuttered.
That was an unprecedented move for football, though other sports have changed rules in the recent past to allow athletes to work with agents and explore the predraft process while still maintaining their eligibility. Hockey, baseball and basketball players have this ability.
Fleck’s statement said Bateman initially opted out “because of personal health concerns surrounding COVID-19,” but the player “now feels comfortable rejoining the team” because of the Big Ten’s new safety measures, including daily testing. Baratz also said Bateman really didn’t think there was any way the Big Ten would play.
Returning to college also gives Bateman an opportunity to improve his draft stock, though he is already a projected first-round pick, possibly even top 10. But if other receivers in his draft class remain opted out, like LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, Bateman has an advantage.
Bateman caught 60 passes for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns last season as a sophomore and was a key cog in the Gophers offense, along with quarterback Tanner Morgan. His return would be a huge boon for the Gophers, who finished last season 11-2 and are contenders in the Big Ten West.
“The process for him to be granted a waiver to compete this fall is a bit more complex, but our compliance office is working closely with the NCAA and Big Ten to come to a resolution,” Fleck said in his statement. “It is our hope that Rashod will be able to represent Minnesota as a student-athlete this fall.”
And for Bateman, it’s a chance for a victory lap.
“I think it’d be really difficult for him,” Baratz said, “to go watch his teammates compete without him being there.”
Staff writer Ben Goessling contributed to this report.