The NCAA is investigating the University of Tennessee’s football program for possible recruiting violations involving a booster group, according to people familiar with the matter, in a significant escalation in efforts to rein in the rapidly growing role of outside money in college sports.
The investigation focuses partly on the use of a private jet by a so-called donor group to fly a high-profile recruit — now the school’s starting quarterback — to campus while the university was wooing him.
It would be a violation of NCAA rules for the booster group to pay for travel by quarterback, Niko Imaleva. The investigation comes after the NCAA penalized Tennessee for various recruiting violations and signals the NCAA’s growing concern about the scale and influence of money funneled into college sports by donor groups.
The case could have a profound impact on the direction of high-profile programs across the country, particularly in football, where outside money collectively raised and distributed to players has reshaped the economics of college athletics. There was news of an investigation into Tennessee’s athletic program. First reported by Sports Illustrated,
Tennessee officials are extremely concerned that the investigation could result in a devastating blow to the school’s football program, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. The program is already on probation for recruiting violations, and school officials are concerned that the NCAA could take harsh action, such as banning the team from postseason play and declaring players ineligible.
Faced with that possibility, the school has hired multiple law firms and is considering multiple legal options to avoid any consequences.
At the center of the investigation are donor groups, which are organized groups of alumni and other boosters who donate money to support teams. They have become a dominant and growing force in college sports over the past several years by taking advantage of a new system established to allow players to benefit from endorsements known as name-image-likeness deals, or NIL.
Groups are increasingly arranging for athletes to be paid sums that are comparable to what professionals earn. Tennessee’s quarterback, Iyamalewa, has reached a deal with the school group. It could cost $8 million, After playing a limited role most of the previous 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, although not technically affiliated with the universities they support, have become closely integrated into the recruiting of high school students and, in an era when athletes seek better opportunities, Can easily transfer from one school to another. Providing attractive deals to retain star players.
The NCAA has set rules for these groups, including prohibiting them from explicitly offering cash to lure recruits, saying any deal can only be made if an athlete enrolls at a school. Take. But the NCAA has also been hit by court losses that have diminished its power to regulate collegiate play. Until recently, there was little evidence that it was policing them at all.
As a result, top-tier college sports programs, especially in football and basketball, have become almost a free market, with coaches openly encouraging alumni and other supporters to keep them competitive by donating money.
Some schools have become increasingly adventurous, appointing their state lawmakers to fight against the NCAA when it tries to make rules.
The latest example came in December, when attorneys general in seven states, including Tennessee, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, calling any eligibility restrictions on transfers a restraint on trade. The lawsuit was joined by the Justice Department this month.
NCAA President Charlie Baker has asked Congress for antitrust immunity. He testified on Capitol Hill that these lawsuits – along with recently enacted state laws that target NIL regulations – have made it nearly impossible for the organization to govern its members.
The New York Times has counted at least 140 groups working at schools with big-time football and basketball programs. Collectives now account for approximately 80 percent of all name, image and likeness payments made to athletes, far more than all the commercial brands for which the system was designed.
In investigating Tennessee’s football program, the NCAA is investigating a team backed by one of the richest and most vocal groups in the country, a booster-funded group called the Volunteer Club. That group is closely linked to a marketing agency called Spire Sports Group: the two entities have the same top executives and the same address in Knoxville, Tenn.
Last year, the website On3.com, which tracks collectivization, described the Volunteer Club as “Leading collective in the countryThe group said it has raised $13.5 million for Tennessee athletes.
The top prize went to Mr. Imalewa, a 6-foot-6-inch quarterback from Long Beach, California, who was recruited fourth in his class.
“The nice word used is ‘collective.’ But make no mistake: This is a war chest,” said Hunter Baddour, a top executive at both Spire Sports and the volunteer club. Said on a podcast in 2022, “We’re working on raising money, building a zero war chest, where Tennessee is going to be as competitive as any other in the country.”
As its collective developed, Tennessee improved on the field. After a long disappointing run, the Volunteers posted a 9-4 record last year and the team finished the season ranked in the top 20.
Mr. Baddour also organized a lobbying group for this new industry, the Collective Association, which is reportedly NCAA called on to share Some of its extensive television revenues are with collectivization.
Mr. Baddour and James Clawson, other top officials at the Volunteer Club, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The void rules, which took effect in 2021, allowed players to pay for advertising, but continued to prohibit students from paying to play. But collectives effectively found a way around that obstacle.
They sign huge contracts for little work to keep athletes happy and playing at their chosen school — sometimes as little as one social-media post a month.
Last July, the NCAA fined Tennessee $8 million and placed its athletic program on probation for five years after finding that “repeated and serious violationsBan on coaches using cash to recruit players. These violations occurred before the name, image and likeness system: instead, coaches paid football players the old-fashioned way, in cash.
Since collegiality emerged in late 2021, the NCAA has announced two cases where it has penalized schools because of name, image and likeness payments from boosters. It was imposed last year light penalty After a booster at the University of Miami posted photos of himself luring potential transfer students to the women’s basketball team.
However, this month, the NCAA levied more severe penalties against Florida State — including a fine and two years of probation — because a football coach there took a potential transfer student to a group meeting. The NCAA said the collective offered the player $15,000 per month to sign with Florida State. The player declined the offer and remained at his original school.