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The NCAA failed its only job: protecting student-athletes



The NCAA was created to support student-athletes. In fact, the institution as a whole was established in 1906 to regulate college athletics after a rash of student-athlete deaths in football. Yesterday, they failed a student-athlete.

 

Devontez “Tez” Walker is a wide receiver from West Charlotte. He earned a three-star rating per 247Sports after earning All-Conference honors and topping the 1,000-yard mark his junior season. Despite those great stats, Walker received only four scholarship offers out of high school: West Virginia, East Carolina, FCS Western Carolina, and FCS North Carolina Central. Walker committed to East Tennessee ahead of his senior season but suffered a knee injury his senior year of high school. East Tennessee then offered to gray-shirt him as the FBS-level offers dwindled away in fear of his injury. For those that don’t know, a gray-shirt is an offer that the player will have a spot on the team next year, meaning they go through their freshman year with no scholarship, no spot on the team, and no time in the building. Understandably, Walker looked elsewhere and signed with North Carolina Central.


When Walker arrived on campus in Durham, he had his scholarship and spot on the team. He rehabbed his knee and was ready to get on the field. Only for the field to be pulled out from under him as the COVID-19 pandemic threw everything into chaos. Instead of having a normal freshman college experience and getting to play as an Eagle, the MEAC canceled the season. Based on NCAA rules at the time, Walker was able to transfer out and found a new home at Kent State.


Now in the FBS and away from home in Ohio, Walker was able to actually work towards becoming the best player he possibly could. In the two seasons coming out of the pandemic, Walker saw action in 20 games, starting 12. His final season with the Golden Flashes established Walker as one of the nation’s best wideouts, earning All-MAC honors behind a stat line of 58 catches for 921 yards and 11 touchdowns.


Off the field, Walker was struggling. His grandmother, whom Walker was the primary caregiver for growing up, was getting incredibly sick and had never seen him play. Walker had a move home on his mind, and then Kent State was thrown into chaos when Deion Sanders was hired at Colorado. Neon Deion wanted a shiny new offense and landed on Kent’s head coach, Sean Lewis. With a new job with the Buffaloes, Lewis and the coaching staff packed their bags for Boulder. Walker decided to pack his bags for home and entered his name into the transfer portal.


Behind his strong sophomore season in Kent, Walker drew plenty of interest in the portal. He eventually found a home in Chapel Hill, signing with North Carolina and coach Mack Brown. On December 21, Walker signed his National Letter of Intent to become a Tar Heel.


Over the winter break, Walker moved from Kent down to Chapel Hill. He enrolled in classes and began his first semester at North Carolina on January 9.


Two days later, the NCAA got involved. On January 11, the NCAA decided to regulate two-time undergraduate transfers. New guidelines laid out that undergraduate players seeking their second transfer would have to be ineligible athletically for one season, similar to their pre-2018 transfer rules. While that is something college football fans were clamoring for, the NCAA made a mistake: they applied it retroactively.


Two days after Walker enrolled at North Carolina and was ready to take a step as a Top 50 NFL prospect and the main target for Drake Maye in front of his family and ailing grandmother, the NCAA ruled him ineligible for a season. Two days after Walker transferred for reasons the NCAA previously laid out as reasons for immediate eligibility waivers, the NCAA ruled him ineligible.


There was no way for Walker to know what the NCAA was going to rule in the future. He did everything by the book and was still punished.

 

Walker, Brown, and the North Carolina athletic department geared up for a fight. They were appealing the ruling and seeking immediate eligibility on the grounds of mental health-related reasons for transferring.


While the appeal was being processed, Walker was still ineligible. As the Tar Heels took the field last weekend against South Carolina in a neutral site game in Charlotte, where his grandmother could attend, Walker stood on the sideline, ineligible. All because of two days in January.


September 7, five days after that game in Charlotte, the hometown that Walker was going back to for his family, the NCAA made their ruling. Tez Walker is ineligible for the 2023 season.


”The membership committee who reviews appeals understands every student-athlete wants every opportunity to compete with their teammates and the committee considers all information provided on behalf of the student-athlete and evaluates each request consistent with the rules set by the members…The NCAA takes student-athlete mental health and well-being seriously, as demonstrated by the DI Board vote in April that will now require all member schools to provide for the first time increased mental health resources and medical support for college athletes…For student-athletes who transfer for a second time and do not receive a waiver to compete immediately, those resources and support systems are still available as they acclimate to their new schools…”

In preparing for the case, Walker and the North Carolina athletic department “provided overwhelming evidence detailing his mental health needs” and reaffirmed that the rules regarding transfer eligibility were changed after Walker’s enrollment at UNC. This evidence included documentation of Walker serving as the primary caregiver for his grandmother and details of his mental health treatment over the years. That, according to the NCAA was not enough.


Rallying behind Walker, UNC Head Coach Mack Brown released a lengthy, scalding statement deriding the NCAA, claiming “[h]ow dare they ever speak on mental health again.” Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, and others released statements in support of Walker.

However, this ruling isn’t as bad as it gets. In fact, it gets much worse.

 

You might remember the opening of this article, where I reminded you about why the NCAA was established: to secure the safety of student-athletes. Now, questions are being raised on if that’s something the organization can even claim to do now.


The NCAA claims to be behind student-athletes and provide for their mental health needs. Then why was Tez Walker not allowed to compete while transferring home with documented mental health needs and an ailing grandmother whom he was the primary caregiver for?


This is not the first time the NCAA has run afoul with a student-athlete, and it won’t be the last.

As Walker stood on the sideline, ineligible because of his transfer to North Carolina, his former head coach, Sean Walker, was celebrating a momentous win in Colorado. A win earned by a roster of 80+ transfer athletes, an unprecedented amount. Texas State, which boasts over 50 transfer players, upset Baylor that same day. Walker, in his hometown, in a stadium where his grandmother and family could finally watch him play, stood on the sideline.


That same day, J.T. Daniels returned to Austin, Texas with Rice to take on the Texas Longhorns for the third time as a starting quarterback. His other two trips came with two different teams: USC in 2019 and West Virginia in 2022. All told, Daniels has suited up with three teams in three seasons, and four programs during his six-year career. Walker has only suited up for one: Kent State.


Five days before the NCAA’s ruling deeming Walker ineligible for the season, he was in his hometown. Instead of playing in front of his family, Walker stood on the sideline in street clothes with his waiver appeal still pending. The NCAA dragged their feet for five days and forced Walker to sit out perhaps the most emotionally impactful game of his career. Five Days.


If we go back to January, when this whole debacle began, we can find something peculiar. Buried in the NCAA’s official media center is a press release dated January 12. One day after the stricter transfer rules that struck out at Walker were handed down. Three days after Walker enrolled at UNC expecting to play and be able to be close to his family.


On January 12, the NCAA “DI board endorsed modernization recommendations.” In that press release, the NCAA championed a “holistic student-athlete benefit model” that included “mental health support in line with Inter-Association Mental Health Best Practices” and “expanded programming focused in areas such as mental health…”


One day after handing down new rules that would complicate the lives of thousands of student-athletes, the NCAA decided to fight for their athletes’ mental health. They failed Tez Walker’s mental health. The NCAA failed Tez Walker.


One day prior to releasing the ruling denying Walker’s eligibility waiver, the NCAA tweeted a video about breaking the stigma surrounding mental health. The very next day, the NCAA decided that Tez Walker’s mental health wasn’t worth a waiver.

This isn’t even the NCAA’s first hypocritical ruling this year. LSU’s Maason Smith was suspended for the Tigers’ opener for violating NIL rules relating to a paid autograph signing in 2021. In case you missed it, that was in 2021 before the new NIL rules were passed in June 2021. Where in Walker’s case the new NCAA rules were retroactively applied to his eligibility, Smith’s case exclusively did not have the new rules applied. Yet again, the NCAA went out of its way to punish its student-athletes. Was what Smith did technically illegal at the time? Yes, it was. But why continue to investigate and punish a student-athlete for something that is legal? Why hand down a suspension for something that student-athletes across the nation were doing at the exact same time as the ruling?


We’ll never know why the NCAA makes these rules and seeks to punish their student-athletes. But, they need to be aware of their hypocrisy and their blatant disregard for the mental well-being of student-athletes. The NCAA has failed in its primary goal, the entire reason for its existence: protecting student-athletes.


This entire process has worn on North Carolina and Walker. In early August, Walker spoke out for the first and only time during this case, saying “I want this to be over. I want to stop feeling like this. I just want to play. I want my grandmother to come and watch me. I want to be a student and an athlete and I hope those in charge give me that opportunity.”


The NCAA never gave him that opportunity. Instead, they cruelly pulled it away from him.

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