In his State of the Association speech last week, NCAA President Mark Emmert reminded the membership of their responsibility to “focus on fairness and treating our student-athletes fairly.” “Concerns arise when our actions don’t line up with our values…when student-athletes don’t get a fair shake,” Emmert said.
Such moral platitudes sound great in theory, but how are the NCAA and its member institutions faring in implementing that philosophy? In the case of former Bakersfield High and Baylor running back Silas Nacita, quite horribly, actually.
If you haven’t followed Nacita’s arc since leaving the Central valley, you’re forgiven, as it’s taken more twists and turns than one of his touchdown runs as a Driller. Long story short, Nacita, a two-sport star in high school (he was the state wrestling runner-up at 170 pounds in 2012), initially accepted a scholarship offer to play at Cornell, but left after his freshman year. He made the move from New York to Waco on the advice of friends from Bakersfield who attended Baylor, eventually walking on to the Bears’ football team in time for the 2014 football season.
In the interim, however, Nacita was broke and basically homeless, working at a Waco restaurant and attending a local community college to keep his dream of playing big-time college football alive. He made it back to Bakersfield for Christmas in 2013 by hitchhiking from Texas to California, a journey that included sleeping in a roadside ditch in sub-freezing temperatures.
During his time at home, Nacita became acquainted with Joe Campbell, whose grandson, Grant, was set to play for Baylor in 2014. The elder Campbell and Nacita formed a quick bond, which led Campbell to periodically check in on his grandson’s teammate. When Campbell discovered that Nacita, still without an athletic scholarship, was unable to pay for housing, food, and school costs, he displayed some basic human decency by financially supporting the increasingly-popular Baylor ball carrier.
That blatant generosity, however, soon caught the ire of the Baylor athletics department which, likely fearful of an NCAA inquiry, declared Nacita ineligible for collegiate competition in early 2015. The offense? While no one is completely sure due to the shroud of secrecy Baylor has cast over the matter, Nacita’s acceptance of Campbell’s aid could have been ruled as impermissible under NCAA Bylaw 220.127.116.11.6, which prohibits athletes from accepting “preferential treatment, benefits or services because of the individual’s athletics reputation or skill”. Since then, the specter ineligibility has haunted the man Baylor fans affectionately referred to as “Salsa Nacho”, preventing him from playing in the NAIA, entering the CFL Draft and even playing in Baylor’s intramural football league.
So, to recap, Silas Nacita began his college career at Cornell, transferred to Baylor, but arrived in Waco with nowhere to stay and next to nothing to his name. He eventually returned to Bakersfield — sleeping on the side of a highway on the way there — where he became acquainted with a future teammate’s grandfather. And, to remove himself from near-abject poverty, he accepted material assistance from that individual, a choice that ultimately vitiated his amateur status. All for taking for what probably amounted to several thousand dollars in pure, unadulterated generosity.
Sound fair to you?
If it does, perhaps these numbers will thaw your heart. Baylor AD Ian McCaw, who callously refused to support Nacita by not filing a waiver to the NCAA on his behalf, made a shade under $500,000 in 2013; Nacita’s one-time coach Art Briles earned $4.24 million in 2015; and Emmert, the man who preached fundamental fairness to his membership, was credited with over $1.8 million in compensation in fiscal year 2013. The Baylor athletics department made $106.1 million and the NCAA itself reported nearly a billion dollars in revenue in 2014. And Nacita, whose family lived on food stamps while he was in high school, who couch-surfed and often went hungry while in college, is busted for accepting a roof over his head and food in his stomach. So much for giving college athletes a “fair shake.”
Nacita’s saga has had a few bright moments, though, including this past weekend at the Dream Bowl, a college all-star game in Virginia Beach, Va. After initially being told he wouldn’t be able to participate, Nacita was cleared to play less than 24 hours before the game, and scored the winning touchdown on a nine-yard run in the second overtime.
A dream ending to the Dream Bowl seems only fair after the nightmare Baylor and the NCAA put him through.
Cameron Miller, a Bakersfield native and Stockdale High School graduate, is a senior at Stanford University, where he participates on the cross country and track and field teams. He currently works as a Stanford Athletics communications volunteer. These views are his and do not necessarily reflect those of his institution.