Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, February 9, 2024

UT program out of control or a rudderless NCAA?

The recruitment of top-rated quarterback Nico Iamaleava seems to be at the center of the NCAA investigation into the University of Tennessee program, though the specifics of the case remain unclear. - Photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack | AP

The congenial relationship between the University of Tennessee and the NCAA has quickly turned sour.

A few months after touting their cooperation, Tennessee officials came out swinging against the NCAA for its latest investigation into the UT athletic department. The entities engaged in a war of words last week following the revelation that UT is under NCAA investigation for alleged violations related to name, image and likeness (NIL).

The investigation involves multiple sports, but the primary focus is football, especially the recruitment of freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava and his relationship with Spyre Sports, a sports marketing and media agency based in Knoxville that runs UT’s primary NIL collective, The Vol Club.

Iamaleava signed what has been reported as an $8 million deal with Spyre before committing to UT and flew on a private plane to Knoxville while being recruited by the Vols. The university and Spyre maintain Iamaleava flew as a client of Spyre and therefore wasn’t subject to NCAA rules.

The NCAA lifted its ban on athletes profiting from their fame in 2021, but kept in place an interim policy that prohibited using payments as recruiting inducements – often known as “pay-for-play” – and having boosters involved in recruiting athletes. During the last 18 months, the NCAA has clarified the rules and provided guidance to ensure members know that booster-funded collectives fall into the category of third-party entities.

Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman sent a scathing letter to NCAA president Charlie Baker shortly after Tennessee officials met with NCAA representatives to discuss the allegations. She called the allegations “factually untrue and procedurally flawed,” adding it is “intellectually dishonest for the NCAA enforcement staff to pursue infractions cases as if student-athletes have no NIL rights.”

“The University of Tennessee complied with the interim NIL policy and guidance as it was put into place by the NCAA,” Plowman wrote. “No member institution could follow future guidance prior to it being given, let alone interpreted.”

Plowman said the leaders of college sports owe it to students and their families to act in their best interest with clear rules, and that the NCAA is nowhere near providing that. Rather, Plowman said “Two and one-half years of vague and contradictory NCAA memos, emails and ‘guidance’ about name, image and likeness has created extraordinary chaos that student-athletes and institutions are struggling to navigate. In short, the NCAA is failing.”

The attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia followed Plowman’s letter by filing an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA challenging its ban on the use of NIL compensation in the recruitment of college athletes, and in response to the association’s investigation of Tennessee.

The NCAA issued its own response, stating:

“While the NCAA generally does not comment on specific infractions cases, it is important to remember that NCAA member schools and conferences not only make the rules but routinely call for greater enforcement of those rules and holding violators accountable. In recent years, this has been especially true as it relates to establishing and enforcing a consistent set of national rules intended to manage the name, image and likeness environment.”

If found to have violated the NCAA’s recruiting policies, UT could potentially be sanctioned as a repeat offender. UT was charged last summer by the NCAA with 18 Level 1 violations and fined a record $8 million for transgressions committed under previous head football coach Jeremy Pruitt. The NCAA could bring forth a charge of lack of institutional control, which is the most serious violation of the NCAA rule book.

Plowman hinted at the charge in her letter to Baker, writing, “It is inconceivable that our institution’s leadership would be cited as an example of exemplary leadership in July 2023, then as a cautionary example of lack of institutional control only six months later.”

UT joins Florida and Florida State as institutions with publicly revealed NIL recruiting cases pending against them. Florida State accepted penalties last month for NIL activity the NCAA deemed illegal, including a coach giving a prospect a ride to meet with a collective.

Tennessee athletic director Danny White released a statement on social media saying he refused to “allow the NCAA to irrationally use Tennessee as an example for their own agenda.” White said if the NCAA is going to use pre-NIL guidelines to enforce penalties on collectives, “100% of major programs in college athletics have significant violations.”

White argued NCAA investigators didn’t find any NIL violations involving Tennessee coaches and personnel, but “moved the goal post to fit a predetermined outcome.” He also accused the NCAA of leaking information about the investigation to the media.

“It is clear that the NCAA does not understand what is happening at the campus level all over the country in the NIL space,” White wrote.

Through attorney Tom Mars, Spyre Sports argued its relationship with Iamaleava wasn’t contingent on signing with Tennessee. The agreement was “fully consistent with then-existing NIL ‘guidelines’ and had nothing to do with recruiting Nico to the University of Tennessee or any other school.”

The agreement with Iamaleava, Mars adds, involves a “limited assignment of NIL rights, no matter which school he chose to attend” and that similar agreements have become “increasingly common” throughout college sports.

The UT case is the latest ripple in a volatile college athletic landscape filled with numerous lawsuits and Congressional hearings that could upend the amateur sports model. Many are asking for college athletes to become employees of universities to allow them to share in the windfall of sports revenue generated largely through media rights deals.

But while conceding athletes need more compensation, Baker and the NCAA wants Congress to help provide federal intervention for an antitrust exemption to allow athletes to remain students and not employees.

Baker recently introduced “Project D1,” which would feature a new tier of NCAA Division I sports in which schools would be required to offer at least half their athletes a payment of at least $30,000 per year through a trust fund. Baker also proposed allowing all Division I schools to offer unlimited educational benefits and enter into NIL licensing deals directly with athletes, which he says is a better alternative than employment. Schools would be allowed to determine individually whether they want to join the new tier.

A few days after the UT investigation was made public, the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten Conference announced they have formed a joint advisory group of university presidents, chancellors and athletic directors to “address the significant challenges facing college athletics” and how to improve the student-athlete experience.

The advisory group was formed in reaction to “recent court decisions, pending litigation, a patchwork of state laws and complex governance proposals.”

In an interview with Yahoo Sports last week, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey suggested the NCAA and its enforcement staff are “distracted” by NIL-related recruiting cases.

Sankey wouldn’t comment on UT’s specific case when asked by Yahoo reporter Ross Dellenger, but alluded to his feelings on where the NCAA should be focusing its energy in the ever-changing landscape of collegiate athletics.

“What’s in front of us are a big set of realities,” Sankey told Dellenger. “Not simply “cases,” but big realities. We need to be dealing with the big realities.”