The term walk-on is used in sports, particularly American college athletics, to describe an athlete who becomes part of a team without being actively recruited beforehand or awarded an athletic scholarship. This results in the differentiation between "walk-on" players and "scholarship" players.
Walk-ons have a particularly developed history in college football. Often these athletes are relegated to the scout team, and may not even be placed on the official depth chart or traveling team. However, there are occasions, sometimes well publicized, where a walk-on will become a noted member of his or her team in one of several ways.
- Due to scholarship limits instituted by the NCAA, many football teams do not offer scholarships to their punters, long snappers and kickers until they've become established producers.
- Sometimes injury and/or outside issues can ravage the depth chart of a particular position, resulting in the elevation of a walk-on to a featured player.
- In other situations, a walk-on may so impress the coaching staff with his or her play on the scout team and in practice that he or she is rewarded with a scholarship and made a part of the regular depth chart. Often, it is the players who achieve success in this manner that are the inspiration for future walk-ons. One significant college football national award, the Burlsworth Trophy - named for the eventual All-American former walk-on offensive lineman at the University of Arkansas, Brandon Burlsworth - has been awarded since 2010 to the most outstanding player in the top-level Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) who began his college career as a walk-on.
- Also, there are times where a walk-on will be a dependable member of the team's practice and scout teams for several years. If a team has an extra scholarship, it may award the player as a token of appreciation for his or her hard work and devotion to the team, although the player may never actually play in a game.
- Finally, in rare cases, an established scholarship player may become a walk-on in order to open up his or her scholarship for another player. Three such cases in men's college basketball have received notoriety in recent years:
- In 2011–12, three Louisville scholarship players, most notably Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith, became walk-ons to bring the Cardinals' scholarship totals down to the NCAA limit of 13.
- In 2013–14, Creighton's Doug McDermott (the son of Creighton's head coach) became a walk-on after a teammate was granted a rare sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, putting the Bluejays over the 13-scholarship limit.
- In 2014–15, Xavier starting center Matt Stainbrook, enrolled in the school's MBA program, gave up his scholarship for his younger brother Tim, who had been a walk-on at Xavier the year before, in order to save their family a five-figure amount in school expenses. This led him to become a driver for the on-demand car service Uber, which gained him significant notoriety during that season.
The reasons athletes choose to pursue the path of a walk-on are numerous. Here are several more common reasons:
- The athlete is already receiving praise, but the school they are particularly interested in does not share the level of interest. This target team could either be considered more athletically prestigious, it may already be saturated at that position or the athlete chooses that school for purely academic reasons over others. The walk-on will join the team to try to win the coaches over.
- The athlete may be a scion of a notable former player, alumnus or coach of the school. Often these players do not strive to be placed in a starting position, rather carry on the tradition of being a part of a particular team.
- In the case of punters and kickers, there may not be a scholarship available, but the coaches may have encouraged or invited them to join the team without offering an athletic scholarship.
- The athlete has not been noticed or taken seriously by recruiters. This can be the result of either not playing the respective sport while in high school or, more commonly, the prospective walk-on played the sport in high school, and perhaps even at an exceptional level, but the level of competition around the player was subpar and led scouts to dismiss the player's ability to adapt to the college game (this is often the case in rural districts where the local public school is often the only option for high school other than homeschooling). In this case, the same drawbacks that prevent the athlete from receiving the athletic scholarship may also prevent the student from even gaining admission to higher level colleges.
- In some instances, a college coach/recruiter may designate an athlete as a "preferred walk-on" during the scouting process. In this situation, the athlete is assured a spot on the team, but the coach is unable or unwilling to offer a scholarship.
Many schools that do not provide athletic scholarships actively recruit student athletes, and these students can get admitted to a school with academic records that are below average for that school. The Ivy League, for example, does not permit athletic scholarships, but each school has a limited number of athletes it can recruit for each sport. Additionally, all prospective athletes are required to meet a minimum score on what the league calls the Academic Index (AI), a metric based largely on high school grade-point averages and SAT or ACT scores. The goal of the AI is to ensure that students who receive athletic admissions slots fall within one standard deviation of the credentials of the student body as a whole.
Division III athletes cannot receive athletic scholarships, but frequently get an easier ride through admissions. Even though these students do not receive athletic scholarships and are not required to play to remain in school, they are not walk-ons, as they were actively recruited. Instead of being awarded an athletic scholarship, they were granted an athletic admissions slot to a school to which they ordinarily would not have been likely to have gained admission.
- Brown, C.L. (June 7, 2011). "Scholarship shift for Louisville basketball makes 3 returners walkons". The Courier-Journal. Retrieved June 24, 2011.
- Goodman, Jeff (July 2, 2013). "Grant Gibbs granted sixth year". ESPN.com. Retrieved August 19, 2013.
- O'Neil, Dana (December 11, 2014). "Meet Matt Stainbrook, Uber driver". ESPN.com. Retrieved March 27, 2015.
- Pennington, Bill (December 24, 2011). "Before Recruiting in Ivy League, Applying Some Math". The New York Times. Retrieved September 12, 2015.