Florida Forward Chris Walker isn’t Sitting Out Because of AcademicsPosted by Chris Johnson on January 15th, 2014
Two Southeastern Conference games took place on Tuesday night. If you’re reading this site, you probably watched one of them. Arkansas beat Kentucky in double-overtime on one of the craziest finishes you’ll ever see. The other game wasn’t nearly as interesting – not in a competitive sense, anyway. Florida beat Georgia, 72-50, to move to 3-0 in conference play and 14-2 overall. The Gators look Final Four-good, and they showed why by thrashing a plucky but overmatched Bulldogs team. It was the kind of beatdown you expect elite clubs to lay on lower-tier outfits like Mark Fox’s group. Ho-hum. The game, however, did provide a reminder of an issue most college hoops fans don’t seem to understand. A few members of Florida’s Rowdy Reptiles student section were wearing white T-shirts with the words “FREE CHRIS WALKER” plastered across the fronts. The students also started a “FREE CHRIS WALKER” chant after the forward came on the court to help officials adjust the net.
The first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the name Chris Walker is academics. Walker endured an unstable family environment and attended a high school that does not have a long history in putting high-level athletes on an academic path suitable for Division I eligibility. Walker took online classes over the summer and had enough credits by December to be declared academically eligible by the NCAA, and he was admitted into Florida and has practiced with the Gators for about a month. Walker still hasn’t played in a game, but the reason why has nothing to do with academics.Instead, it is now believed that the NCAA is reviewing Walker’s relationship with former AAU coach Matt Ramker. Ramker’s team, the St. Petersburg-based Adidas Florida Rams, was disbanded in 2012 after the NCAA discovered that high-profile agent Andy Miller had been in contact with Ramker and other AAU coaches about trying to steer players toward Miller’s ASM sports agency. Ramker, who was hit with a show-cause penalty and a five-year ban from the NCAA, may have paid for an unofficial visit Walker took to Kansas in October 2011. Head coach Billy Donovan addressed Walker’s situation on Monday but refused to go into specifics.
“I’m not involved with it. I said earlier, our administration, I totally trust them. I trust them to handle it. I think it’s probably one of those situations where you’ve got a very high-profile player that’s having to sit out and miss games. I’m not at liberty to talk about all the things that are going on with him, for one because I don’t know all those things and, two, it’s more of a school issue. It doesn’t really concern us as far as our coaching staff or our team. It’s stuff that our institution is handling, and you just have hope and optimism that the NCAA is going to sit there and say, you know what, this kid sat out some games. He’s been forthright, he’s been truthful and we’re going to get to a speedy decision on this thing.”
It sounds like Walker – unlike a certain former North Carolina shooting guard who recently signed a contract with a team from the NBA Developmental League – was honest with NCAA investigators. If that’s the case, he should be able to return to action sooner than later. That doesn’t make it any easier to try to figure out when he might be cleared to play. Details about his interactions with Ramker have not been made public, and, who knows, maybe the NCAA is looking into something Walker did that the media is completely in the dark on.
In a post over at The Dagger Tuesday, Yahoo!Sports blogger Jeff Eisenberg cited a source who said a decision on Walker’s eligibility is not imminent, but did not confirm that Walker’s eligibility issue is related to his history with Ramker. If the only thing Walker did to compromise his eligibility was take money for an unofficial visit (clearly, it’s not), would the NCAA, notoriously slow though it is, be taking this much time to investigate his past? And would Walker have been forced to sit out seven games (and counting)?
Maybe that’s why Donovan sounds so incensed by this whole thing. In any case, getting Walker back would boost what already looks like a legitimate national championship contender. Florida has size, depth, shooting and one of the best NCAA Tournament coaches out there. Adding the 2013 McDonald’s All-American dunk contest champion, a player projected as a lottery pick in DraftExpress’s latest 2015 mock draft, would make the Gators even more formidable. It seems likely he will be back before the end of the season. Comments like this from Donovan suggest as much. “I think a lot of times, those are the things where it’s not just one standard. And the one theme has been, in my opinion, be truthful, be honest. And I think I can say at least from our school’s perspective, they feel like Chris has done that and that’s all we’re asking for.”
The more games Hairston missed, the less confidence people inside and out of North Carolina’s program had that Hairston would return. Donovan sounds optimistic that Walker will play this season. The reason he’s hasn’t yet, though, is unrelated to the academic shortcomings that kept him from qualifying for fall semester. It has to do with his possible acceptance of impermissible benefits.
Tuesday night’s T-shirt protest was only the start. I suppose it’s only a matter of time before a rock band jumps on board.