As the NCAA struggles to defend college sports as “amateur” in the wake of legal defeats, legislative dead ends, NIL becoming pay-for-play, athletes advancing towards employee recognition and conferences realigning like pro leagues, the national governing body now stands accused of fumbling the transfer of a prominent football player with mental health challenges.
On Thursday, North Carolina head football coach Mack Brown and athletic director Bubba Cunningham publicly lambasted the NCAA for deeming wide receiver Devontez “Tez” Walker ineligible for the 2023 season.
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Walker previously attended North Carolina Central and Kent State—having transferred to Kent State because COVID canceled his season at North Carolina Central. He began his coursework at UNC nine months ago and sought to play in 2023 as a two-time transfer.
The NCAA’s policies on transfer eligibility have evolved in recent years and attracted allegations of inconsistent treatment. Earlier this year, the NCAA’s Division I Council adopted guidelines saying multiple-time transfers cannot play immediately unless the player can “document a personal need for medical or safety reasons to depart from the previous school.”
Walker, who is from North Carolina, argued that he sought to return home to better address mental health challenges. His previous schools both submitted documents to the NCAA supporting Walker’s transfer and request to play in 2023.
Brown ridiculed the NCAA’s decision as illogical, harmful to Walker and delegitimizing NCAA authority over college sports.
“It’s clear,” Brown said in a statement, the NCAA “couldn’t care less about the young people it’s supposed to be supporting.” Further opining that the NCAA’s decision will make Walker’s health challenges “worse,” Brown asserted “how dare [NCAA officials] ever speak about mental health and student-athlete welfare again.”
He added he’s “lost all faith in the [NCAA’s] ability to lead and govern our sport” and concluded by writing: “Shame on you NCAA. SHAME ON YOU!”
Cunningham was equally critical of the NCAA, calling the decision “maddening, frustrating and wrong.”
The NCAA’s rejection of Walker’s eligibility follows his appeal of an earlier NCAA rejection. Unless he pursues a legal challenge and wins, Walker won’t be eligible to play at UNC until 2024.
Walker, as well as UNC, could seek a restraining order from a court that bars the NCAA from denying Walker’s eligibility.
Walker could maintain he would suffer irreparable injury in that he will be held out of games that can’t be replayed and his development as a football player will consequently suffer. He could also argue that playing football helps his mental health, and being denied eligibility will exacerbate his health challenges. Walker might assert a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act, contending the NCAA’s application of the transfer rule denies him a reasonable accommodation.
The difficulty with a legal pursuit is the NCAA is a membership organization and membership organizations are granted substantial authority by courts in enforcing membership rules. Unless the enforcement of rules is deemed arbitrary or capricious—a very deferential standard—it would likely withstand legal scrutiny.
The basic logic for this deference is that since UNC (like other NCAA members) has contractually agreed to adhere to NCAA membership rules as a condition of membership, and since NCAA members vote on NCAA rules, UNC, and its coaches and students, ought to be bound by rules it agreed to follow. Similarly, Walker does not have an inherent legal right to play college football. No law commands it.
That said, judges, be they conservative or liberal, have become increasingly critical of the NCAA’s leadership and its system of amateurism. That dynamic may make it more appealing for Walker and UNC to test the ruling in court.