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UNC says the NCAA has denied appeal efforts for Walker's immediate eligibility

FILE - North Carolina coach Mack Brown watches as the team prepares for an NCAA college football game against Virginia Tech in Chapel Hill, N.C., Oct. 1, 2022. Brown is calling out the NCAA for dragging its heels on the case of transfer wide receiver Devontez Walker, who has not yet been ruled eligible. (AP Photo/Chris Seward, File)

The NCAA has denied North Carolina's appeal efforts for immediate eligibility for transfer receiver Devontez Walker, a decision that led to criticism Thursday from both Tar Heels coach Mack Brown and athletic director Bubba Cunningham.

The school announced the decision less than a week after Walker roamed the sideline but didn't play during the 17th-ranked Tar Heels' season-opening victory against South Carolina. Brown went public last month about the school's efforts to appeal the NCAA's decision denying a waiver allowing the Kent State transfer to play immediately.

In announcing the decision, Brown capped a lengthy and blunt statement this way: “Shame on you, NCAA. SHAME ON YOU!”

NCAA rules generally allow players to transfer freely once, but the association regards Walker as a two-time transfer because he enrolled at North Carolina Central before ending up at Kent State. The Eagles didn't play football because of the COVID-19 pandemic during Walker's time at North Carolina Central, so he has played only for Kent State (two seasons).

And he enrolled at UNC in January, days before a rule change restricting free movement by two-time transfers.

The decision means Walker must serve a year in residence in Chapel Hill before becoming eligible to play next year, a path that was traditionally the norm for transfers before the current era of free player movement through the transfer portal.

Still, the NCAA's stance has drawn widespread criticism nationally, including during the ABC national broadcast of UNC's opener and even from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper.

“It's clear that the NCAA is about process and it couldn’t care less about the young people it’s supposed to be supporting,” Brown said. "Plain and simple, the NCAA has failed Tez and his family and I’ve lost all faith in its ability to lead and govern our sport.

“They’ve messed so many things up as it relates to college football, and now their failures have negatively impacted the life of one of our own.”

In a separate statement, Cunningham said the NCAA has denied Walker's clearance a total of eight times. He said the decision “undermines the fair treatment” of athletes and erodes public confidence in NCAA leadership.

“The NCAA had an opportunity to demonstrate that this is a new membership organization by using common sense, reason and compassion to determine the eligibility of Tez Walker,” Cunningham's statement began, adding later: “Instead the NCAA made a maddening, frustrating and wrong decision — for Tez, for college football and for college athletics.”

The NCAA released a statement Thursday discussing the eligibility-review process but declining to comment on specific cases. The Division I Council decided earlier this year that multiple-time transfers must document injury, illness or mental-health concerns necessitating the transfer or issues surrounding the athlete's safety.

Stephen LaPorta, James Madison's assistant athletics director for compliance, served as chairman of the committee handling UNC's final appeal. He pointed to NCAA requirements approved in April for member schools to provide increased mental-health resources and medical support among 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 prior to competing the next year,” LaPorta said.

Walker's mental health is one of multiple factors UNC has 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.

Brown said Walker — who was expected to be the top target for star quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Drake Maye — had been down and struggling emotionally amid the uncertainty leading to the opener.

He was originally set to play at East Tennessee State before suffering a knee injury that led him to defer enrollment. Instead, 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 to his move to Kent State.

Cunningham said both schools supported Walker's bid, adding that Walker is a Dean's List student set to graduate in December 2024.

His teammates had his back, too. The Tar Heels gave Walker the game ball after beating the Gamecocks, while Maye wore Walker's jersey backwards — ensuring Walker's name was visible on his chest — while doing postgame interviews.

“He’s had a rough go of it and this will surely only make it worse,” Brown said Thursday. “How dare (the NCAA) ever speak about mental health and student-athlete welfare again.”

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