The NCAA is investigating the University of Tennessee football program for a possible recruiting violation involving a booster group in a major escalation of efforts to curb the rapidly expanding role of outside money in college sports, according to people familiar. with the case.
The investigation focuses in part on the use of a private jet by a so-called donor collective to fly a high-profile recruit (now the school's starting quarterback) to campus while the university courted him.
Making the booster group pay for quarterback Nico Iamaleava's travel would be a violation of NCAA rules. The investigation comes after the NCAA penalized Tennessee for separate recruiting violations and signals the NCAA's growing concern about the scale and influence of money that donor collectives pump into college sports.
The case could have profound implications for the direction of high-profile programs across the country, especially in football, where outside money collected and disbursed to players by collectives has reshaped the economics of college athletics. News of the investigation into the Tennessee athletic program was first reported by Sports Illustrated.
Tennessee officials are deeply concerned that the investigation could result in a devastating blow to the school's football program, according to a person briefed on the matter. The program is already on probation for previous recruiting violations, and school officials are concerned that the NCAA could take drastic action, such as banning the team from postseason play and disqualifying players.
Faced with that possibility, the school has hired several law firms and is considering a variety of legal options to avoid any consequences.
At the center of the investigation are donor collectives, which are organized groups of alumni and other boosters who donate money to support teams. They have become a major and growing force in college sports in recent years by exploiting a new system created to allow players to benefit from endorsements, known as name, image and likeness agreements, or NIL.
Collectives are increasingly organizing for athletes to receive sums that rival those earned by professionals. Iamaleava, Tennessee quarterback, has an agreement with the school collective That could be worth 8 million dollars.. After playing a limited role for most of last season, he became the team's starter in the Citrus Bowl on New Year's Day, leading Tennessee to a 35-0 victory over Iowa.
At many Division I schools, collectives, while not technically affiliated with the universities they support, have become closely integrated into high school recruiting and, in an era when athletes can easily transfer from one school to another in search of better opportunities, offering lucrative deals to retain star players.
The NCAA has set rules for these groups, including a ban on explicitly offering cash to attract recruits, saying any deal can be closed only after an athlete commits to a school. But the NCAA has also been hurt by court losses, eroding its power to regulate collectives. Until recently, there was little evidence that he was monitoring them.
As a result, top-tier college sports programs, especially in football and basketball, have become a nearly limitless market, with coaches openly urging alumni and other sponsors to keep them competitive by donating money.
Some schools have become increasingly emboldened, recruiting their state lawmakers to fight the NCAA when it tries to set rules.
The latest example came in December, when attorneys general from seven states (including Tennessee) filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, calling any eligibility restrictions on transfers a restraint of trade. The Justice Department joined the lawsuit this month.
NCAA President Charlie Baker has asked Congress for an antitrust waiver. He testified on Capitol Hill that these lawsuits, along with recently enacted state laws targeting NIL rules, made it nearly impossible for the organization to govern its members.
The New York Times has counted at least 140 groups that operate in schools with major football and basketball programs. The collectives now represent approximately 80 percent of all payments for names, images and likenesses to athletesmuch more than all the commercial brands for which the system was designed.
In examining Tennessee's football program, the NCAA is investigating a team backed by one of the richest and most outspoken collectives in the country, a booster-funded group called the Volunteer Club. That group is closely tied to a marketing agency called Spyre Sports Group: the two entities share the same top management and management in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Last year, the website On3.com, which tracks groups, called the Volunteer Club “theleading group in the country” after the group said it had raised $13.5 million for Tennessee athletes.
The biggest prize was Mr. Iamaleava, a 6-foot-6 quarterback from Long Beach, California, who had been the fourth-ranked recruit in his class.
“The nice word used is 'collective'. But make no mistake: This is a war chest,” said Hunter Baddour, a top official with Spyre Sports and the Volunteer Club. said in a podcast in 2022. “We're raising funds, creating an NIL war chest, where Tennessee will be as competitive as anyone else in the country.”
As their team grew, Tennessee improved on the field. After a long dismal stretch, the Volunteers posted a 9-4 record last year and the team finished the season ranked in the top 20.
Baddour also organized a lobby group for this new industry, the Collective Association, which has apparently asked the NCAA to share part of their considerable television income to groups.
Baddour and James Clawson, the other top Volunteer Club official, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
NIL rules that came into effect in 2021 allowed players to be paid for their endorsements, but continued to prohibit students from being paid to play. But the groups effectively found a way to get around that limitation.
They signed athletes to huge contracts for small amounts of work, sometimes as little as one social media post per month – to keep them happy and playing at their chosen school.
Last July, the NCAA fined Tennessee $8 million and placed its athletic program on probation for five years, after finding “repeated and atrocious rapes” of the ban on coaches using cash to recruit players. Those violations occurred before the names, images and likeness system: Instead, coaches paid football players the old-fashioned way, in cash.
Since the collectives emerged in late 2021, the NCAA has announced two cases in which it punished schools for payments for promoters' names, images and likenesses. Last year he imposed light penalties at the University of Miami after a booster posted photos of himself courting potential transfer students for the women's basketball team.
This month, however, the NCAA imposed stricter sanctions, including a fine and two years of probation, against Florida State after a football coach took a prospective transfer student to a group meeting. The group then offered the player $15,000 a month to sign with Florida State, the NCAA said. The player rejected the offer and stayed at his original school.
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