North Carolina’s Devontez “Tez” Walker is cleared to play after all.
The NCAA said Thursday it has granted a waiver for immediate eligibility to the transfer receiver, reversing its position after the university had fought for months to get Walker on the field. The case led to testy words between the school and NCAA, public criticism of college sports’ governing body, even intervention from politicians.
Ultimately, the NCAA cited new information provided through the school, coming roughly a month after denying Walker’s appeal to seemingly close the door on Walker’s chance to play in the regular season.
Instead, Walker — who has continued practicing and was projected to be star quarterback Drake Maye’s top target — could make his debut Saturday against Syracuse for the 14th-ranked Tar Heels.
Raleigh-based attorney Elliot Abrams released a statement on behalf of five attorneys who had worked on Walker’s case with UNC, with that statement citing involvement by state Attorney General Josh Stein.
“We could not be more pleased that Tez will be competing this season,” the joint statement read. “The NCAA’s decision to grant Tez’s eligibility is unquestionably the correct decision under any reasonable review of the evidence.”
Stein’s office also released his letter sent to the NCAA in September, calling the decision to eligibility denial “wrong — and likely illegal” while raising the possibility of litigation.
In a social-media video from the team, head coach Mack Brown and receivers coach Lonnie Galloway notified Walker and exchanged lengthy hugs.
“This hasn’t been easy but I am looking forward to putting this in the past and moving forward,” Walker said in a statement. “I always knew UNC was a special place, but it has proved it over and over again the last few months.”
Yet even the resolution had a prickly element.
In a joint statement, NCAA President Charlie Baker and Division I Board of Directors chair Jere Morehead called it “unfortunate that UNC failed to provide this important information previously” while adding the case now meets new tighter standards for waivers considered two-time transfers.
The NCAA also again criticized UNC’s conduct and “decision to wage a public relations campaign,” calling it “inappropriate and outside the bounds of the process UNC’s own staff supported.” The NCAA Board of Directors said last month it was “troubled” by UNC’s public criticisms and said committee members involved had even received threats of violence.
“Had the UNC staff not behaved in this fashion and submitted this information weeks ago, this entire unfortunate episode could have been avoided,” the statement continued.
UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham responded by calling the NCAA’s justification for its announcement inaccurate.
“The university submitted all necessary information and documentation as it was made available to us at the time and we still believe Tez met all standards for waiver in early August,” Cunningham said on social media. “It is not clear why the NCAA delayed making the correct decision then, but we are pleased to get to the appropriate resolution now.”
Walker’s mental health is one of multiple factors UNC had cited in making its case. He’s an instate product from Charlotte and had transferred after a coaching change at Kent State to be closer to family, notably a grandmother with multiple ailments who had been unable to travel out of state to see him play.
Additionally, Walker had enrolled at UNC in January, days before the change to limit waivers for two-time transfers to a case-by-case basis. Players are allowed to transfer once with immediate eligibility.
Originally, Walker was set to play at East Tennessee State before suffering a knee injury and deferring enrollment. He recovered and landed at North Carolina Central, but the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the fall 2020 season at the Championship Subdivision level. Then the team opted out of the limited spring 2021 slate, leading him to Kent State for his only football action.
Brown had said that Walker had been down and struggling emotionally amid the uncertainty of his case. And he issued a harsh, lengthy statement after after last month’s denial that ended: “Shame on you, NCAA. SHAME ON YOU!”
By Thursday, Brown’s statement thanked those who assisted Walker and said officials “can’t wait to see (Walker) on the field doing what he loves to do.” Meanwhile, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who had sent his own letter to the NCAA in support of Walker’s eligibility in August, added in a social-media post: “Better late than never.”
Walker had remained a large presence for UNC, regardless. He had been on the sidelines for games, with the team wearing helmet stickers and T-shirts in his honor. And in the final minutes of the Sept. 16 win against Minnesota, UNC students were loudly chanting: “Free Tez Walker!”
“I can’t wait to put on that jersey, run out of the tunnel and play in Kenan Stadium,” Walker said. ”I’ve been dreaming of this for a long time and now it will be a reality. See everyone on Saturday.”
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed contributed to this report.
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