North Carolina's Devontez Walker says waiting on NCAA appeal 'frustrating'

ESPN logo
Wednesday, August 23, 2023
UNC Football Head Coach Mack Brown on Tez Walker situation
EMBED <>More Videos

Coach Mack Brown doesn't hold back when calling for change from the NCAA with how it handles student athlete mental health situations.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina receiver Devontez Walker said Tuesday he is frustrated he still has no answer about whether he will be able to play this season as he awaits an NCAA decision on his appeal.

Earlier this month, North Carolina announced Walker had his waiver to play denied, the result of new legislation passed in January making it more difficult for two-time transfers to have waivers approved. North Carolina appealed on his behalf but has been given no timetable on when his case will be heard. The season kicks off in 10 days against South Carolina in Charlotte.

"It's frustrating," Walker told ESPN in his first public comments since his waiver was denied. "It's B.S. I don't know how I will feel throughout the season if I'm not able to play."

The appeal will be heard by a committee of representatives from Division I schools. The committee will then make a decision and present it to the NCAA. North Carolina has asked to present its case to the committee in a teleconference so Walker can speak on his own behalf. But North Carolina has not been informed yet whether the committee will grant that option.

So Walker waits as the season gets closer to kickoff on Sept. 2 in Charlotte -- his hometown and the reason he is back in North Carolina. Walker made the decision to transfer from Kent State last December to be closer to his family in Charlotte, specifically his grandmother, Loretta Black, who helped raise him.

Devontez 'Tez' Walker (Photo: UNC Athletics)

Walker detailed mental health challenges he faced being so far from home, as Black struggled with her physical health and underwent surgery while he was at Kent State. Given the way the NCAA has begun to emphasize the mental health needs of athletes, Walker said he does not understand the initial denial of his waiver.

"I just feel like it ain't fair, especially somebody in my situation," Walker said. "They say they stand on mental health. I have the perfect situation and now it's just like the hell with it, we're just going to prove a point and deny it. So it's frustrating, seeing what they're doing."

While Walker was in high school, he served as Black's primary caregiver as she dealt with multiple health challenges, including knee and hip replacement. She was unable to do much for herself. Walker, who was already living with her at the time, did the cooking, cleaning and food shopping, and also bathed and clothed her. In 2020, he had the opportunity to play close to home at NC Central, and arranged for other family members to care for her.

He was still able to visit home, but COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the season. Walker wanted to play, and Kent State was the only option he had available. So he made the decision to move to Ohio just so he could see the field. Walker said being far from home started to take a toll on his mental health. He was able to visit his grandmother only twice a year, and though he started to play well, he said his demeanor changed as he worried more about her as last season progressed.

"It weighed on me a lot," he said. "She had a surgery while I was gone, so there were a lot of things she was going through at the time I was up there. I was producing on the field, but I would go home every night and was upset because I couldn't see her, and I couldn't help her. Week 7, Week 8 I thought I might leave to get somewhere closer to home. It didn't matter where it was to me, as long as I could get home to help her out."

Walker said he talked to the team doctor about his mental health challenges. When he entered the portal in December, Walker had lost his head coach and position coach, and his closest friends also decided to transfer. He said the team doctor recommended he begin seeking mental health counseling at his new school.

"I want people to know this ain't no fraud and no sob story," Walker said. "I've seen things on Twitter when we put this stuff out, people think it's some sob story so I can be eligible to play. It isn't. This happened. I take it to heart. That's what I want people to know."

Walker said he was aware that when he chose North Carolina, he would need to file a waiver to play as a two-time transfer. But he said he had no idea the NCAA was on the verge of tightening the waiver approval process.

On Jan. 11, two days after Walker began classes at North Carolina, the Division I Council voted unanimously to significantly tighten the criteria for waivers. The NCAA says "multiple-time transfers who cannot demonstrate and adequately document a personal need for medical or safety reasons to depart the previous school are not eligible to compete immediately following their second undergraduate transfer."

According to the NCAA, the Division I board of directors voted in August 2022 to restrict the waiver rules, and the board's direction made it clear to NCAA members that waivers would be harder to come by this year. That was news to both Walker and North Carolina, who then realized it would become much more difficult than anticipated to get a waiver. The school worked for months to put the necessary paperwork together, including documentation about his mental health and need to be closer to home. In addition, Kent State also sent in documentation saying Walker needed to transfer for mental health reasons.

North Carolina coach Mack Brown has expressed his own frustration with the process, telling reporters last week, "I see a mental health issue, I see it at the highest level and I can't imagine some committee that's sitting up in Indianapolis with doors closed which has never met this kid doesn't have to step up and really look at mental health if we're worried about student-athlete welfare like we say we are, because you're taking away his opportunity to play. Tez needs to be able to play, and people need to stand up for it."

Walker has received mental health counseling since his arrival at North Carolina. As for the way he has handled news of the initial waiver rejection, Walker said he continues to practice in the hope that he will be allowed to play. If he's not, he said he will remain on the team and sit out the season, per NCAA rules.

"Some days, I'll be fine and then the next day, I'm breaking down crying in front of coaches," Walker said. "Because I don't know if I'm going to play. They tell me every day it's out of my hands, not to worry about it. But it's hard to not think about it. It feels like I'm out there practicing for no reason."