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NCAA investigation takes on growing role of booster groups

NCAA investigation takes on growing role of booster groups

The NCAA is investigating the University of Tennessee football program for a potential recruiting violation involving a booster group as part of a significant escalation of efforts to curb the rapidly expanding role of outside money in college sports, according to people familiar with the matter.

The investigation focuses in part on the use of a private jet by a so-called collective of donors to transport a top recruit – now the school’s starting quarterback – to campus while the university courted him.

Making quarterback Nico Iamaleava pay for the booster group’s trip would be a violation of NCAA rules. 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 being pumped into college sports by donor collectives. .

The case could have profound implications for the direction of high-profile programs across the country, particularly in football, where outside money collected and paid to players by collectives has reshaped the economics of athletics university. News of the investigation into Tennessee’s 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 past recruiting violations, and school officials fear the NCAA could take drastic action, such as banning the team from postseason play and disqualifying players.

Faced with this possibility, the school has hired several law firms and is considering a range of legal options to avoid any consequences.

At the heart 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 set up to allow players to benefit from endorsements, known as name or likeness agreements, or NIL.

Collectives are increasingly ensuring that athletes receive sums that rival those of professionals. Iamaleava, the quarterback of Tennessee, has an agreement with the school collective it could be worth $8 million. 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 technically unaffiliated with the universities they support, have become closely integrated with high school recruiting and, in an era when athletes can easily move between schools looking for better opportunities, in offering lucrative deals to retain star players.

The NCAA has set rules for these groups, including prohibiting them from explicitly offering money to attract recruits, saying any deals can only be made after an athlete commits to a school. But the NCAA has also been hobbled by court losses, eroding its power to regulate communities. Until recently, there was little evidence that he was monitoring them.

As a result, top college sports programs, particularly in football and basketball, have become an almost unfettered market, with coaches openly urging alumni and other donors to maintain their competitiveness by donating money. ‘money.

Some schools have become increasingly emboldened, enlisting their state lawmakers to fight back against 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 restrictions on transfer eligibility a restraint of trade. The Justice Department joined the suit this month.

NCAA President Charlie Baker has asked Congress for an antitrust exemption. He testified on Capitol Hill that these lawsuits — along with recently enacted state laws that target NIL rules — make it virtually impossible for the organization to govern its members.

The New York Times counted at least 140 collectives operating at schools with high-profile football and basketball programs. Collectives now account for about 80 percent of all payments to athletes’ names, images and likenesses, far more than all the commercial brands the system was designed to support.

In reviewing the Tennessee 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. This group is closely linked to a marketing agency called Spyre Sports Group: the two entities share the same senior management and the same address in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Last year, the site On3.com, which tracks collectives, called the Volunteer Club “first collective in the country” after the group reported raising $13.5 million for Tennessee athletes.

The biggest prize was Mr. Iamaleava, a 6-foot-6 quarterback from Long Beach, Calif., 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,” Hunter Baddour, a senior official at Spyre Sports and the Volunteer Club, said on a podcast in 2022. “We are fundraising, creating a NIL war chest, where Tennessee will be as competitive as anyone in the country.”

As its collective grew, Tennessee improved on the field. After a long dismal run, the Volunteers went 9-4 last year and the team finished the season in the top 20.

Mr Baddour also organized a pressure group for this new industry, the Collective Association, which would have asked the NCAA to share part of its significant television revenues with collectives.

Mr. Baddour and James Clawson, the Volunteer Club’s other top executive, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

NIL rules that took effect in 2021 allowed players to be paid for endorsements, but continued to prohibit students from being paid to play. But the collectives have actually found a way to get around this constraint.

They signed athletes to huge contracts for a minimal amount of work – sometimes as little as one social media post per month – to make them happy and play at the school of their choice.

Last July, the NCAA fined Tennessee $8 million and placed its athletic program on probation for five years, after finding “repeated and flagrant violations» of the ban on coaches using cash to recruit players. These violations took place before the name, image and likeness system: 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 over payments for the name, image and likeness of boosters. Last year he imposed light sanctions on 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 harsher sanctions – including a fine and two years of probation – against Florida State, after a football coach drove a potential transfer student to a meeting with a collective. The collective then offered the player $15,000 per month to sign with Florida State, the NCAA said. The player declined the offer and remained at his original school.

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Mattie B. Jiménez

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