Donovan talks about Chris Walker’s ordeal

Tuesday night, Chris Walker will finally make his college basketball debut for the Florida Gators against Missouri. It has been a long and trying ordeal for the 6-10 freshman from Bonifay but after sitting 12 games (he wasn’t enrolled at UF until the end of the fall semester), Walker will finally take the court, probably a bit wiser to the ways of the world.

The NCAA ruled that Walker received extra benefits such as free cell phones, shoes, apparel and travel among other things during the time he was playing AAU and high school basketball. In its statement, the NCAA said five people were involved in the illegal benefits and that some of them came from two agents. His punishment is the 12-game suspension plus a repayment of $270 to a charity along with 80 hours of community service.

The Walker ordeal raises a lot of questions. Friday afternoon when he spoke to the media, Florida coach Billy Donovan shed some light on what’s been going on. Donovan made it perfectly clear that the University of Florida was not implicated in anything improper when recruiting Walker, a McDonald’s All-American who was rated one of the ten best prospects in the country coming out of Holmes County High School.

“It had really nothing to do with us and our recruiting of Chris,” Donovan said Friday. “It had to do with obviously his AAU program, what happened in high school and those kind of things. I’m just happy for him that the NCAA has allowed him to at least play here relatively soon.”

Walker played AAU basketball, first for the Atlanta Xpress and then for the Florida Rams. There are rumors that the Atlanta Xpress has had some shady dealings in the past. The Florida Rams were one of four AAU teams ordered disbanded by the NCAA in the summer of 2012 for improper relationships with agent Andy Miller of the ASM Sports Agency.

While it is speculated that most of Walker’s problems have to do with the association with the Florida Rams, Donovan says he is in the dark about specific details.

I wasn’t even aware of any of this stuff until obviously it came down through, after the summer was over with, and nor was any of the information shared with me what the actual details were with all of it because that was between the NCAA, our institution and Chris,” Donovan said. “Our administration here told me, ‘Listen. I can’t discuss anything with you. They’re looking into things that took place while he was not here or while the University of Florida, us were recruiting him.”

One of the recurring questions during the entire ordeal, which first saw light back in the summer when Walker was trying to get his academics in order so he could be admitted to the University of Florida did Walker know that he had received benefits deemed illegal by the NCAA?

The fact is that illegal benefits are so commonplace on the AAU circuit that (a) the NCAA can’t police everybody or every situation and (b) kids probably have no idea that they might be engaging in something illegal because nobody really tries to hide that they’re doing something illegal.

Donovan believes that Walker was naïve – “I think Chris certainly was probably a little taken back that some of those things were an issue” – and that Walker’s guardian had no way of knowing what was legal or illegal. Walker’s parents abandoned him when he was an infant. He was raised by his grandmother until she died when he was 11. At that point, Campbell, a close friend of Walker’s grandmother, took him in and raised him as her own.

When Walker was finalizing his efforts to get into Florida, Campbell and her children moved to Ocala to be close to Chris and give him continuing support and love.

Jeneen Campbell, who is Chris’ basically his guardian there and she’s a great lady – she’s done the very, very best job she can to help Chris,” Donovan said. “She doesn’t know the rules. She was kind enough to help out Chris at a time when he was growing up to give him a home and place to grow up and I really, really respect her a lot. Obviously, I think for her she’s probably looking at it like, ‘Why didn’t I know more?’”

This brings up the question why didn’t someone know the rules? That’s not such an easy question to answer because the rules are often complicated and sometimes seem conflicting. The NCAA does some seminars on the rules at all-star events, but there are too many schools, too many kids being recruited and too many rules for the NCAA to efficiently provide oversight.

“At some point, what is the obligation of the institution or the NCAA?” Donovan asked rhetorically. “I know the NCAA tries. They try at All-American events, summer events try to talk to the kids and explain things to them, but it’s very, very difficult in a lot of ways.”

When the NCAA began questioning Walker about the people he was associated with, Walker was honest and didn’t try to cover things up. Perhaps in being so forthcoming, he added to his own dilemma by telling the NCAA things it didn’t know.

But to Walker’s credit, he gave honest answers.

“I respect Chris from this standpoint,” Donovan said. “When he had a chance to sit down and speak with them, he was open and honest and basically told them everything they needed to know, and probably gave them a lot more they weren’t even aware of. I respect Chris for that. And I think Jeneen did the same thing.”

Donovan was quick to point out that nobody tried to cover anything up and that Walker, Campbell and others who have been caring adults in Walker’s life are victims of their own lack of understanding about the complex NCAA rulebook when it comes to recruiting and the AAU.

“I don’t think this was something that was done in a kind of a cunning, deceitful way,” Donovan said. “It was one of those things, kind of like, ‘Wow!’ There was probably some naivete there. Like I said, Chris Walker, his family, the people involved around Chris are good people.”

But not everyone who has had a hand in this ordeal really had Chris Walker’s best interests in mind.

You know, I don’t know who made the decisions, why it happened, how it happened, what was the reason for any of those things,” Donovan said. “I really don’t. I don’t even know all the parties involved. I’ve obviously dealt with Jeneen because in the recruiting process Chris stays with her. And I like I said she’s a great lady and has always been supportive.

But all the other people involved, I’m not so sure about those other people.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.