Opinion

ROBERT ORR: NCAA cares nothing about the well being of college athletes

Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023 -- The NCAA and its member institutions don't really want players transferring because of mental health reasons unless the mental health issues are so extreme that the player would be of no use to the original school's athletic endeavors.
Posted 2023-09-14T02:15:01+00:00 - Updated 2023-09-14T17:23:14+00:00

EDITOR'S NOTE: Robert Orr is a lawyer and was elected associate justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1994 and served on the court until 2004.

The NCAA and its 1200 member institutions are fundamentally wrong in the “Tez” Walker eligibility case for two critical reasons. While fans and critics of the NCAA, myself included, are dismayed over the personal impact on “Tez” Walker and tangentially his teammates at UNC, the wrongs in this case go far beyond one player and his eligibility to play college football.

First, the NCAA and its members have historically punished college students playing athletics by limiting their ability to transfer to a different school and play their sport of choice. This policy of having to sit out a year of competition has nothing to do with the welfare of the young men and women impacted by the rule. It has everything to do with schools, athletic departments and coaches hating to lose players who decide to transfer to a different school.

As the pressures on the NCAA increased over the past several years, the NCAA reluctantly agreed to loosen the transfer rules. The “infamous” transfer portal became a relatively easy way for players unhappy at their existing schools to look for new opportunities and “greener pastures”. Fans however were ecstatic when the Brady Manek’s of the world transferred in and equally frustrated as players left the program to go elsewhere. Schools and coaches were likewise unhappy with the greater ability to transfer and ultimately pressured the NCAA to tighten the screws.

But as Marc Edelman, a law professor specializing in sports law and anti-trust law, told local sports host Adam Gold, the NCAA’s limitations on students being able to transfer and play immediately, may well violate the anti-trust laws of the United States. After all, it’s the collective power of the NCAA and those 1200 institutions who have imposed punitive limitations on these student-athletes by limiting their ability to transfer. Of course, these limitations apply to absolutely no one else who walks the campus halls or treads on the sports fields of the universities. Administrators, coaches, professors, other students, literally everybody, can jump to a new school with no punitive limitation – except students wanting to play college sports governed by the NCAA.

As much as athletes transferring may irritate the schools and fans, there is a fundamental right to do so without any sort of punishment or limitation. Edelman is right, in my opinion, and the NCAA policy is an anti-trust violation but even more importantly it is a fundamental failure to look out for the best interest of students.

Secondly, the NCAA’s new policy on waiver of the transfer limitation based on a mental health condition, is both unreasonable and extreme in its scope. We, as a society, have become far more acutely aware of the subtleties and scope of mental health issues particularly in our younger population. The NCAA’s PR effort to show their concerns for student-athlete mental health issues belies the reality of their waiver standards for mental health reasons.

I daresay that few covering the “Tez” Walker case which deals with the mental health waiver, have actually read the NCAA’s standards, guidelines and directives on this issue. Among the requirements of proof for “Legislative Relief” is a requirement that the school provide “evidence the student-athlete experienced impaired daily function at the previous institution.” This evidence must be provided through “contemporaneous medical documentation or through the submission of statements from multiple non-clinical sources at the previous institution regarding how the student-athlete’s daily function was impacted or observed.”

These requirements go on to say, “Applicant institution must provide evidence the student-athlete’s impaired daily function was caused by mental health challenges and why those mental health challenges necessitate transfer to applicant-institution.” And this is just a part of the ridiculous burden placed on the school seeking the waiver for the student-athlete. No wonder that UNC, despite obviously doing everything possible to prove the case for the waiver, failed.

The obvious takeaway from this burdensome waiver standard for mental health issues, is that the NCAA and its member institutions don’t really want players transferring because of mental health reasons unless the mental health issues are so extreme that the player would be of no use to the original school’s athletic endeavors.

Between forcing a student and the institution he or she wants to transfer to, to put the student’s mental health issues in front of the world, as in the “Tez” Walker case and necessitating an almost impossible standard to meet to get a waiver, the NCAA shows that it doesn’t really care one bit about the real issues facing student-athletes. Mental health advocates across the country should be up in arms about this callous treatment of the serious issue of the mental health well-being of these young people. It’s time for action to rein in the NCAA’s abuses.

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