Latest on the NCAA, Tennessee and NIL investigations, plus isn’t everyone doing it?

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Happy February! The coaching carousel is still moving, the NCAA is loading up on investigations, and the national championship was still less than one month ago. Let’s get into it.

NCAA-NIL Timeline

What’s the latest in investigations?

The states of Virginia and Tennessee are challenging the NCAA ban on using NIL in recruiting in a lawsuit filed in federal court on Wednesday. Since NIL legislation passed on July 1, 2021, such benefits have not been permitted as recruiting inducements, but that line is more blurry than it is clear. Here’s a timeline of developments in NIL-related NCAA investigations … in 2024 alone:

  • Jan. 11: The NCAA Committee of Infractions levied penalties against Florida State’s football program, an assistant coach, one of its collectives and a booster for NIL-related recruiting violations. The NCAA said the assistant set up a transferring player to meet a booster, who offered the player an NIL opportunity worth $15,000 in the spring of 2022. FSU was fined $5,000 plus one percent of its football budget, placed on two years of probation and must disassociate with the booster for three years, among other penalties.
  • Jan. 19: An investigation into Florida’s football program regarding the high-profile 2022 recruitment of QB Jaden Rashada was reported. Two sources with knowledge of the investigation said the NCAA has inquired about the role of Florida staff member Marcus Castro-Walker and booster Hugh Hathcock.
  • Monday: Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman sent a letter to NCAA president Charlie Baker criticizing what she called “two and a half years of vague and contradictory NCAA memos, emails and ‘guidance’ about name, image and likeness” and said the organization is “failing.” The letter was sent concerning an investigation that came to light on Tuesday.
  • Tuesday: The news broke that Tennessee was under NCAA investigation for alleged NIL violations in multiple sports, including football. Spyre Sports — a collective unofficially associated with the University of Tennessee — is part of that investigation, specifically due to its involvement with Volunteers QB Nico Iamaleava. The New York Times reported part of the inquiry is looking at Spyre Sports’ role in flying a high-profile recruit — presumably Iamaleava — to Tennessee’s campus on a private jet.
  • Wednesday: Tennessee and Virginia took action to seek a temporary restraining order barring the NCAA from enforcing its NIL-recruiting ban or taking any other action to prevent prospective college athletes and transfer candidates from engaging in meaningful NIL discussions before enrollment. The antitrust lawsuit pointed to the Supreme Court’s 9-0 decision on Alston v. NCAA in 2021, which ruled the NCAA can’t limit education-related payments to student-athletes.

How serious is the newest investigation into Tennessee? Stewart Mandel explains in his mailbag.

Mandel’s Mailbag

Given what we know of the Tennessee, Florida and FSU investigations for NIL-related inducements, can we stop acting like it’s not a big deal or cheating? This is illegal, and oddly, folks have seemed to brush it aside because “everyone is doing it” while acting like Connor Stalions committed the biggest violation in history. — Anonymous, Washington, D.C.

I realize this is a popular Michigan fan viewpoint, but you’re comparing apples to watermelons. One issue impacts the integrity of on-field competition, while the other impacts the integrity of off-field recruiting.

The Michigan case was cut-and-dried: All sports organizations have agreed-upon rules governing their on-field competitions, and Stalions allegedly broke them. But with Tennessee, even if the NCAA has the goods on a booster collective inducing a recruit, it’s unclear in today’s climate if it still has the legal standing to enforce any rules involving athlete compensation.

Spyre Sports’ relationship with Vols recruits, including Iamaleava, has been widely known for nearly two years. We published a story in February 2022 in which Spyre’s president boasted of spending millions on recruits and another the next month about a five-star recruit — whom the Internet quickly pieced together was Iamaleava — who signed an $8 million NIL marketing deal with Spyre. All of it seemed at the time like flagrant abuse of the rules.

But whenever I would ask folks in the collective world why they weren’t more fearful of an NCAA crackdown, I heard back exactly what we’re seeing this week: If the NCAA ever tried to punish them, it would be an antitrust suit waiting to happen.

Sure enough, we had our first one within 24 hours of the Tennessee news.

The attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia are arguing that the NCAA can’t open the spigots for athletes to earn NIL money but still try to limit whom they can discuss NIL deals with and when. They contend it’s anticompetitive to deny recruits access to some of the primary bidders in the NIL free market — collectives.

But the NCAA likely will counter that NIL pay-for-play restrictions are both necessary and procompetitive because, without them, the schools with the richest boosters would hoard all the talent and create a competitive imbalance among its members. Yes, we know that imbalance already exists, but we’re talking legalese here.

For the entire history of college athletics, something akin to Spyre and Nico’s arrangement would be universally viewed as blatant cheating — just like with Michigan’s sign-scouting scheme. But a court of law with no regard for NCAA history may well declare there’s nothing wrong with boosters offering money to recruits.

Read the full mailbag here.

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