Chris Walker freed: NCAA clears Gators forward to play for Florida vs. Missouri

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida's highly-touted freshman will finally be able to prove he's a phenom next Tuesday.

As of next Tuesday, Chris Walker will be free, having been cleared by the NCAA to play against Missouri on February 4, as first reported by ESPN's Jeff Goodman:

The NCAA confirmed Walker's "reinstatement" in a press release shortly after Goodman's report:

Men’s basketball student-athlete Chris Walker will be eligible to play for the University of Florida on Feb. 4 after sitting a total of 12 games, or 40 percent of the 2013-14 basketball season. Walker received preferential treatment from five people, including two agents. In addition, Walker will be required to donate the $270 received from the agents to a charity of his choice and serve 80 hours of community service for the remaining benefits received.

According to the facts of the case, which were agreed upon by the university and NCAA staff, when Walker was a prospect, he accepted free cell phones and service, airfare, lodging, meals and apparel. Additionally, individuals close to Walker received free airfare and lodging for nine different trips, including eight associated with Walker's non-scholastic basketball team competitions.

The Gators have been without Walker since his December 14 enrollment in school thanks to those impermissible benefits, some of which were tied to an unofficial visit Walker took to Kansas in 2012. Walker has already missed 10 games while ineligible, and will miss two more — Florida plays Mississippi State Thursday and hosts Texas A&M on Saturday — before taking the court against the talented Tigers in a 9 p.m. Super Tuesday game that will air on ESPN.

Florida confirmed and remarked on Walker's "reinstatement" in tweets:

Goodman's report — as good as gold, given Goodman's track record with reporting on Florida in recent years — and the NCAA and Florida confirmations of it bring months of speculation about Walker's status to a close. The central question ("When will Chris Walker be cleared?") endured throughout a fall Walker spent training and finishing classes so he could enroll at Florida and for the better part of the last six weeks, which have been spent waiting for Walker's clearance by the NCAA.

Only Gators' Adam Silverstein notes today that he reported in December that Walker was told not to expect to play until January after his December enrollment, but it wasn't until Associated Press reporter Mark Long reported Monday that Walker was expected to be cleared this week that there has ever been a non-blog report of his expected clearance — a source told Alligator Army last week to expect Walker to play before the end of January, and he'll just miss that cutoff.

But the NCAA, which discloses that Florida filed for Walker's reinstatement on January 21, also includes language in its release that suggests Walker's saga may produce policy change:

When a school discovers an NCAA rules violation has occurred, it must declare the student-athlete ineligible and may request the student-athlete’s eligibility be reinstated. The NCAA staff reviews each student-athlete reinstatement request individually based on its own merits, including the significance of the violations, and set of specific facts. After consideration by Division I Leadership Council on Jan. 17, the membership has directed the national office staff to consider when extenuating circumstances lend themselves to an alternative outcome for these types of decisions. The governance committees and Leadership Council have agreed to review such circumstances and provide feedback to the staff.

If Walker's "crime" here is accepting $270 worth of free cell phones and service, and clothes, food, and travel expenses — or what "airfare, lodging, means and apparel" translates to outside of Indianapolis — then I'm hard-pressed to see how forcing him to miss 40 percent of what could be his only season of college basketball isn't a punishment that goes well beyond the "crime."

But the NCAA alluding to "extenuating circumstances" — in Walker's case, extreme poverty and a family situation that left him without contact with either parent — being a factor in future decisions at least means that the organization that prevented one person from becoming a student-athlete for months and months will take a more holistic look at people like Chris Walker in the future.

And, because of that, though he's not really free yet, Walker may have already done college sports a fair bit of good through his ordeal.

Now comes the fun part: The guy who has earned the well-deserved nickname "Sky" with his phenomenal athleticism will finally get to soar for the Gators.

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