Editorial Roundup: North Carolina

Charlotte Observer/Raleigh News and Observer. September 14, 2023.

Editorial: The NCAA doesn’t care about athletes like Tez Walker. It should stop pretending

The overlords of college athletics have used up a lot of oxygen lately trying to convince you that they care about mental health. Don’t believe a word of it.

The denial of Tez Walker’s appeal to play football at North Carolina this season has made it abundantly clear that the NCAA’s priority is not the well-being of its athletes. The rejection only sharpened longstanding criticisms that the institution is preoccupied with money and power, students be damned. And UNC is absolutely right to push back on it.

At the heart of this situation is a student who decided to transfer back to his home state for the sake of his own mental health. It brought him closer to his support system and to his ailing grandmother, who might finally be able to watch him play a game of college football. In a statement last month, Walker described the “stress and anxiety” he felt attending school far from home while his grandmother was battling health issues.

There’s also the fact that, due to COVID, he technically has only played football at one school, and that he enrolled at UNC before the NCAA approved stricter guidelines regarding waivers for two-time transfers who seek immediate eligibility. Those are the details that lead many to think that Walker and UNC could mount a legitimate legal case against the NCAA.

Those technicalities are enough to make the NCAA’s decision seem unjustified, but what makes it especially cruel is that this young man needed compassion that the NCAA refused to show. He’s not the only one, either. The NCAA recently denied a similar waiver for a Florida State player who transferred schools to be closer to his ailing mother.

Cruel, too, is the process that ultimately ended in a denial. Walker had to provide extensive documentation of his mental health challenges. He had to share those most personal parts of his life with the world in hopes of getting the NCAA’s attention. He waited an excruciating number of weeks for a decision, because the NCAA took its sweet time to deliver it. That’s likely only exacerbated the stress and anxiety Walker was feeling in the first place.

Any system that forces a player to prove that their mental health concerns are “serious” or “legitimate” enough to be worthy of relief is not a system that cares about the well-being of its athletes. It is a system that — as UNC head coach Mack Brown said — cares more about process than people.

Brown issued a scathing rebuke of the NCAA after its decision last week, saying he’s “lost all faith” in the institution’s ability to govern the sport.

“Shame on you, NCAA,” Brown said in the statement. “SHAME ON YOU!”

The NCAA responded Tuesday with its own statement, saying it was “troubled” by the remarks made by Brown and other UNC leadership. But it’s a coach’s job to support his players, and criticizing Brown for doing just that is further proof of the NCAA’s severely misplaced priorities.

At a press conference Wednesday morning, Brown doubled down on his support for Walker.

“I’m not going to apologize for standing up and trying to do what’s best for our young person,” Brown said. “... And if I had to do it over again, I’d do exactly the same thing.”

Good. Governed by a body that looks at players and sees nothing but dollar signs, coaches and school officials need to stand up for their athletes. UNC should continue doing just that and pursue every possible path to fighting the NCAA’s decision, including legal action.

The NCAA’s statement went on to suggest that, in some cases, sitting out for a season after transferring to a new school might actually be better for an athlete’s mental health than playing football. According to whom? In what upside-down world does a student benefit when we bar them from playing the sport that they love? The NCAA has no business pretending it knows more about what’s best for Walker than his coaches, his doctors, his family and Walker himself.

Brown is right. Shame on the NCAA. The less relevant it becomes, the more desperate it gets to maintain its hold on college athletics. It’s hard to see the Tez Walker decision as anything other than an exercise of power — one that ultimately harms the athletes it ought to be protecting. The NCAA shouldn’t even bother pretending it cares about its players anymore. We all see through the facade.