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Former USC fullback pushing for walk-on reforms

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Tim Lavin is a former USC walk-on fullback-turned-author, who has become a strong advocate for other walk-ons. Lavin is pushing the NCAA for reforms and, as you'll read below, some of those changes may be in the works. I spoke to Lavin about his "Inclusion Petition" as well as with the NCAA's Meghan Durham about the walk-on related matters he has brought up.

Q: What made you decide to pursue this?

Lavin: I wanted to write a book detailing the realities of being a walk-on in college sports. After five years of research, Walk-On U: The Shocking Truth Behind Football's Unsung Underdogs was printed in October 2013. I have received overwhelming feedback and it continues to grow daily, nationwide.

Some of those "realities" of being a walk-on are the very unfair, unjust and segregated NCAA rules that are in complete contrast to their stance on protecting the student-athlete and looking out for their well-being. The Inclusion Petition into the NCAA was written to tackle those rules, make changes and provide for a safer and more level playing field for walk-ons. The Inclusion Petition addresses some basic, fundamental issues, which have been ignored or snubbed by NCAA fiat for decades. Change is not only long overdue, it is mandatory.

Q: What do you think would surprise fans to know about how walk-ons are treated under the NCAA rules?

Lavin: There are three mind-blowing NCAA policies that are so difficult to comprehend; they range from the completely absurd to downright segregation and safety hazards.

By first-hand accounts of readers reporting back to me personally, people are shocked to learn about the "Pay to Eat" NCAA Training Table Policy. People are stunned that walk-ons, who by rule are student-athletes, who dedicate the same amount of time as everyone else, and go to the same meetings, watch the same films, work out in the same weight room and endure the incredibly rigorous physical practices, must pay to nourish their bruised and battered bodies while the scholarship players, coaches, student managers, student trainers and invited media can enjoy a hearty meal post-practice without opening their wallets.

People are also alarmed to learn that most member institutions do not cover the athletic insurance of walk-ons. Walk-ons must buy additional athletic insurance to be under the umbrella coverage of their athletic department and team doctors. The NCAA rule opens the door ever so slightly by saying "member institutions may provide insurance..." However, because Division I college sports (primarily football and basketball) is huge business, covering insurance for walk-ons would cut into the profits. So unfortunately, member institutions choose to ask walk-ons to pay yet another expense as they use those abled, free bodies to help their programs.

Lastly, walk-ons do not sign National Letters of Intent (NLI) that bind a player to a school like the scholarship players do. The NLI is a contract between the scholarship player and the athletic department. Walk-ons are typically viewed by most coaches as cannon fodder, live blocking and tackling dummies, with no intention of ever playing them in a real game. Moreover, the NCAA has no interest in the academic achievements of walk-ons. The NCAA demands to know the Academic Progress Report (APR) of all scholarship athletes. No request is made to see the APR of walk-on athletes. With that said, should a "no-name, nobody walk-on" wish to transfer to a different institution, he/she is hit by the NCAA Transfer Penalty and forced to sit out a full year, losing a year of eligibility (as though they were a scholarship player).

Ironically, walk-ons are excluded when they should be included (training table, insurance) and included when they should be excluded (transferring).

Q: What made you want to walk on back when you were a college student?

Lavin: I felt my high school accomplishments would garner me a Division I scholarship. I was wrong. Angry for being overlooked after being named CIF Player of the Year in Southern California, I decided I would walk on and prove everyone wrong. My dream from the age of 7 was to play college football for a major powerhouse program. I was too impatient to go to a junior college and was eager to get the process started so walking-on was my only option. USC afforded me the opportunity to walk on.

Q: How did being a college athlete who came up the walk-on route shape you as a person?

Lavin: After two years at USC, I earned a scholarship and saw life from a new perspective. During my tenure I lived in both worlds. First, I experienced the injustices, the inequalities, the discrimination, the demoralization and the preconceived mindsets. After fighting, literally, with the likes of Junior Seau, Willie McGinest and many others on our top-rated defense, I moved up the ranks to a new role. I graduated from practice player to game-day player.

But, the whole experience had a firm grip on my outlook and I never wanted to forget where I came from, nor leave behind the walk-ons still fighting for their own identity, an opportunity and a little respect. It is an emotional bond, a resilient brotherhood.

Despite the negative setbacks and the additional mountains of adversity affecting the daily morale of the walk-on life, I learned that no physical or emotional obstacle was too big to overcome no matter how dire the situation was or how much righteous indignation had engulfed my spirit. Giving up is just not in the DNA of the truly dedicated walk-on. I try and use those skills in my daily life with work, my family and now this massive quest to overturn outdated, illogical and dangerous NCAA rules that adversely affect the quintessential student-athlete: the walk-on.

Q: Realistically, what are you looking to accomplish with this?

Lavin: The Inclusion Petition I have put forth will inform American sports fans and media of where we really are today and what we must do for basic fairness and the true protection and sincere well-being of all student-athletes.

I am hoping that after nearly five decades of division the NCAA board and committee members will come to understand the monumental importance training table has on the human body, not just scholarship bodies. I am hopeful the NCAA decision-makers will make athletic insurance a must (not a "may") and provide coverage for all walk-ons who make the team and are asked to report for duty. I expect walk-ons to be free to transfer without penalty (perhaps with some logical parameters) since athletic departments and walk-ons are not bound to each other by an NLI and the NCAA has no interest in their educational achievements (APR).

Q: Have you reached out to the NCAA and if so, what kind of reaction have you received?

Lavin: Unfortunately, I did not find the NCAA transparent. Several of my attempts to obtain an interview with anyone at the NCAA headquarters willing to go on the record during the research for my book went unheeded. When I called to ask for rule clarification, the legislative rules interpreter refused to give me her last name. I was perplexed. If they have nothing to hide and all their rules make perfect sense to them, what is there to be afraid of?

Last week my Inclusion Petition went out to NCAA President Mark Emmert and his board of directors. I have yet to hear from anyone. To be fair, we are right in the middle of the NCAA basketball tournament, which is a money machine cash cow for the NCAA. Nevertheless, from past experience, I am not holding my breath for a phone call. I believe it will take national media exposure and American sports fans' support to put pressure on the NCAA executives to listen. I hope I am wrong and they see this fantastic opportunity to make positive change.

Q: How long have you been working on this?

Lavin: I had been writing the book, Walk-On U, in my head on and off for 20 years. However, when I really sat down to put pen to paper my first interview was with Pete Carroll over five years ago in 2008. From there, the support snowballed and I obtained interviews and backing from the likes of Tom Osborne, Lou Holtz, Terry Donahue, Jackie Sherrill, Don James, Dabo Swinney and Karl Mecklenburg to name a few. A day after the national championship this past January, coach Jimbo Fisher of Florida State gave me his endorsement.

The Inclusion Petition into the NCAA was submitted here in March 2014. This is the very beginning in what I believe will be historic changes in polices governing walk-ons.

Q: What kind of reaction have you had from other former walk-ons?

Lavin: Every day I get wonderful feedback through my website or social media from former walk-ons I do not know around the country telling me of their own stories. The walk-on plight is a national epidemic. Right now only the walk-ons who walked in those uncommon shoes know of the drudgery and are fervently behind my mission. But soon the whole nation will come to know this sad state of affairs that keep walk-ons down and their backs against the wall. With nationwide support, those walls will come down.

Q: How do you envision this playing out?

Lavin: It may take time, money, testimony from sports nutritionists, doctors of human biology, neurologists, the U.S. Congress or lawyers to sway votes to protect the student-athlete walk-on. I hope common sense prevails and protection can begin immediately, before the start of football season, 2014.

Note: I've included the NCAA's Meghan Durham's response to my inquiry about the issues Lavin raised here.

Durham: To his point about meals: The Division I Legislative Council will vote next month (April) on potential rule changes that would allow unlimited meals and snacks to scholarship and walk-on student-athletes.

Regarding insurance: All student-athletes are required to have health insurance. Schools are allowed to use Student Assistance Fund money to assist a student-athlete's family in paying for a primary policy (last year, more than $73 million was available to student-athletes through that fund). Most athletics departments also provide secondary coverage to a primary policy held by a student-athlete's family, and the NCAA also offers catastrophic injury insurance to student-athletes.

To his point about transfer rules: The ultimate goal for the NCAA is make sure that student-athletes are succeeding in the classroom, on the courts and in life. The transfer rules are in place to ensure that all student-athletes have enough to time to acclimate to a new school from an academic standpoint before adding additional commitments on the court/field.


Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.
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