All Tez Walker wants to do is play football.

At his dream school. Close to his ailing grandmother. Alongside teammates with whom he’s been practicing since January.

But instead of playing football, the NCAA has turned the North Carolina receiver into a political football.

His case and the war of words that has erupted around it have replaced conference realignment as the hottest topic in the college game this side of Boulder, Col.

The escalating controversy started as a disagreement over the NCAA’s enforcement of its rule regarding 2-time transfers and the denial of the waiver it originally granted Walker to play for the Tar Heels this season.

But with each passing day, it devolves into something much darker.

It has turned into a grudge match between the NCAA and the University of North Carolina that’s becoming less and less about Walker by the hour.

Appeals have turned into threats of potential legal action. A debate over mental health has ensued with little to no regard for the mental well-being of the innocent 22-year-old caught in the crossfire.

Worst of all, angry rhetoric has turned into threats of violence and dueling accusations.

And neither side shows any signs of backing down.

Before we go any further, here’s a quick primer on how all this got to where we are today:

In 2019, Walker signed to play at East Tennessee State but never actually attended a class there after suffering an ACL tear that required a full year to rehab. He then enrolled at NC Central. But he never played a game there, either, because the COVID pandemic wiped out the school’s 2020 season.

The speedy receiver eventually landed at Kent State, where he caught 63 passes for 1,045 yards and 12 touchdowns over 2 seasons. That was the first time he played college football. But with his coach having left and his grandmother in poor health, he decided to enter the transfer portal and head to UNC.

Walker enrolled on Jan. 9. Two days later, the NCAA changed its rules to make it more difficult for 2nd-time transfers to obtain a hardship waiver for immediate eligibility.

Seven months later, he was officially ruled ineligible.

Walker’s situation is not unlike dozens of others around the country in which 2nd-time transfers were also denied hardship waivers. Florida State defensive tackle Darrell Jackson is among them.

What sets this apart – and has turned it into a national story – is UNC’s reaction to the ruling.

Rather than quietly accepting the NCAA’s decision, coach Mack Brown and athletic director Bubba Cunningham both issued tersely worded statements hammering the NCAA for its lack of compassion toward Walker and his family.

It was an admirable show of support for a player projected to fill a key role this season.

But it likely backfired.

Backed into a corner, the decision-makers at the NCAA dug in even deeper and decided to draw a line in the sand. It’s as if the merits of Walker’s case were no longer as important as putting UNC’s athletic officials in their place for their perceived insubordination.

And maybe even exacting a little payback for the technicality that prevented them from punishing the Tar Heels’ basketball program for its part in a highly-publicized academic scandal a few years ago.

Whatever the reason, Walker’s latest appeal was denied last week.

And that’s when things really got ugly.

Brown pulled out his blowtorch again upon receiving news of the unfavorable ruling by saying that “the decision-makers at the NCAA and on the committee should be ashamed of themselves for doing this to a young man.”

He called out the hypocrisy of the decision by noting that there are several players around the country at their 4th different schools. And a few that are in their 7th or 8th years of college eligibility.

“Plain and simple,” he wrote, “the NCAA has failed Tez and his family, and I’ve lost all faith in its ability to lead and govern our sport.”

In response, University of Georgia President Jere Morehead – acting as chairman of the NCAA’s Division I Board – publicly called Brown out for inciting “violent and possibly criminal threats” against himself and fellow committee members through his comments.

Make no mistake, threatening harm toward another individual – particularly over something as trivial as college football – is unacceptable under any circumstance. And anyone who does it should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.

But to try and pin the angry reaction on Brown, who did nothing more than stick up for his player by strenuously disagreeing with an unfavorable ruling, only adds to the optics that the NCAA is more interested in punishing UNC than acting in the best interests of a “student-athlete.”

In a statement Tuesday addressing the reason behind the denial, the NCAA cited concern over graduation rates of transfers, adding that it logically makes sense that an athlete who transfers multiple times further slows his academic progress.

Maybe, but Walker is a Dean’s List student who is on schedule to graduate in December of 2024.

In every way, Walker is the atypical 2-time transfer.

To his credit, Brown isn’t backing down.

“I’m not going to apologize for standing up and trying to do what’s best for this young person. Because if we haven’t, we’re not doing our job,” he said Wednesday. “If I had to do it over again, I’d do exactly the same thing.”

Now that UNC has all but exhausted its options for getting Walker reinstated, it’s time for the youngster and his family to retain legal counsel and sue the NCAA for its unreasonable restraint of trade in denying him the ability to play college football.

Should his case ever see the inside of a courtroom, it’s almost a certainty that Walker will come away with considerably more money in a suit and tie than he ever could have earned in pads and a helmet from name, image and likeness compensation.

The NCAA has lost literally every legal battle it has faced since the O’Bannon verdict was handed down in 2014. It has been stripped of its ability to regulate everything from academics, transfers and finances to the traditions that are the very fiber of its existence.

It’s an antiquated organization that has outlived its usefulness and will be replaced sooner than later as college athletics continue to shift to more of a professional model.

This grudge match with UNC is the NCAA’s last grasp at holding onto what little authority it has left.

And Tez Walker is little more than collateral damage.