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NCAA’s cruelty to Tez Walker is a feature, not a bug

Since it should be obvious to any reasonable person that Tez Walker has a valid case to play football at North Carolina this year, it should be equally obvious that the NCAA’s appeal process is designed to be exactly not that: reasonable.

Walker’s case – essentially, he lost one season to COVID when N.C. Central declined to play, despite being enrolled at his fourth school has only actually played football for one, and chose to transfer close to home over other options to address his mental-health needs with the support of his two previous schools – is why there are waivers and appeals in the first place, to assess and accommodate exceptional situations that don’t fit neatly into the NCAA’s precepts. As his clearly does not.

But the process, and Thursday’s latest denial, shows what it’s really all about: Keeping athletes in their place. The cruelty is the point.

At a time when college athletes are paid cash to play (what do you think “cost of attendance” really is?) and can do things that would have gotten them banned and shunned forever in the past, like appear in a radio ad or host a youth camp, the NCAA has very few hammers left to remind athletes that they are expendable pieces in a system designed to exploit their free labor in the service of everyone else.

Slapping around someone like Walker, whether he deserves it or not, is all part of the game. This kind of petty bureaucracy is designed to be petty. Being arbitrary and capricious is not a bug, it’s a feature.

It’s important to remember that the NCAA isn’t the IRS. It’s not some government agency. It’s exactly what university presidents want it to be; in this case, what an appeals panel made up of seven college administrators — four compliance directors, two senior women’s administrators and the athletic director at Alabama State — want it to be. It’s what football coaches and athletic directors wanted when they asked the NCAA to restrict transfers.

They created this system and perversions of justice like this perpetuate it, keeping labor in check, deliberately.

N.C. State went through this with Braxton Beverly a few years ago. The NCAA was prepared to take away a year of his eligibility because he enrolled in summer school at Ohio State, then changed his mind days later when the coach who recruited him suddenly retired. The NCAA was going to make him sit out a year for having the temerity to go to class. Remember that the next time someone tries to shove “student-athlete” down your throat.

Common sense prevailed then, but not now – and the NCAA wasn’t even talking about “transformation” or mental health or any of that stuff it throws around these days to try to sound like it cares. The high hopes many had for new president Charlie Baker, a successful executive, a pragmatic, bipartisan politician and most of all an outsider, appear to have been in vain. Baker seems to get the existential challenges facing the NCAA in a way his predecessor, Mark Emmert, never did, but that’s not what his real bosses — the same university presidents currently running after dimes on the street — want him to address.

So … to the litigationmobile!

Walker and UNC can now try to go after the NCAA in court, and while it’s easy to ask why that process hasn’t already begun, it’s just as easy to understand why North Carolina thought Walker’s appeal would win on the merits and wanted to let the process play out without poisoning the well.

Courts have traditionally been loathe to interfere in the workings of private organizations like the NCAA, but perceptions among judges have shifted radically in recent years, from the O’Bannon case that opened the door to the NIL era to the Supreme Court ruling against the NCAA in the Alston case that included a scathing concurrence from Justice Kavanaugh. Walker might have a chance with the right lawyer, whether it’s arguing that the NCAA’s own rules have been misapplied – Walker filed his waiver two days before the NCAA tightened its criteria in January – or some sort of antitrust angle, since that’s where courts seem most receptive to ruling against the NCAA.

UNC football player Michael McAdoo went the legal route back in 2014, after the NCAA declared him ineligible for improperly accepting a tutor’s help in what was later discovered to be one of UNC’s fake “paper” classes. (He was first suspended three games for taking $110 worth of “improper benefits,” which we now call “NIL.”) The NCAA’s record in the case was riddled with errors, but UNC’s appeals were denied and a Durham County judge agreed with the NCAA that its incompetence was a problem for its voluntary associates, like UNC, and not the courts.

That didn’t stop a lawyer representing the NCAA from pointing at McAdoo and calling him a “cheater” multiple times. NCAA heal thyself.

That was typical of rulings at the time, even in proto-NIL cases like Olympics skier Jeremy Bloom’s attempt to play football at Colorado a decade earlier. In 2023, that argument might not be taken as kindly.

Walker’s case wasn’t even the most mindbending on UNC’s campus this month. Coaches and administrators have complained about players who transfer multiple times; Walker is the example of why there should be waivers at all but it’s still what the NCAA membership wanted, coaches especially. Through the distorted lens of the NCAA, it adds up.

UNC tennis player Fiona Crawley’s does not. Crawley was in line for $81,000 in prize money for making the main draw at the U.S. Open, but had to give it up to remain eligible to play for the Tar Heels. The most she could keep and continue playing in college was $10,000. On the surface, that sounds reasonable – that’s the difference between being an amateur and a professional, right?.

But even beyond NIL deals and cost-of-attendance payments, the NCAA allows Olympic medalists to accept medal bonuses, which range from $37,500 for a gold medal here to seven figures in Singapore. So if Crawley won gold at the Olympics, playing against professionals, she could keep the money, just not prize money from the U.S. Open. The NCAA is consumed with that kind of pedantic crap, because it reminds college athletes who’s boss.

In the future, the USTA should just present college players with their prize money in the form of an NIL contract. Go sign some of those giant tennis balls, here’s a check for $81,000!

Better yet, make it make sense. For Crawley. For Walker. For everyone.

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