The University of Tennessee is currently facing an NCAA investigation regarding potential violations related to name, image, and likeness (NIL), according to sources revealed to ESPN on Tuesday. This investigation puts the university’s sports program at risk of sanctions as a repeat violator, following a recent NCAA ruling in the summer of 2023, which found the university guilty of 18 Level I violations and imposed a record $8 million fine.
Sources indicate that the current allegations have a wide scope, potentially leading to charges of multiple Level 1 and Level 2 violations. The investigation centers around activities associated with the Spyre Collective, Tennessee’s primary NIL collective, particularly within the context of football. However, it is noted that Spyre Collective sponsors athletes across various sports.
Sports Illustrated was the first to report on the NCAA’s investigation into Tennessee. The university has responded to these allegations, with a document obtained by ESPN showing that Tennessee’s chancellor, Donde Plowman, has informed NCAA president Charlie Baker that the allegations are both “factually untrue and procedurally flawed.” Plowman’s letter, obtained through an open records request, criticizes the NCAA’s rules regarding NIL as “intellectually dishonest” in their formulation.
The timing of this tension is noteworthy, as the NCAA seems to be placing increased focus on rules associated with name, image, and likeness. Recent cases at Florida and Florida State have also emerged, linking alleged NIL violations to their respective sports programs.
Despite Tennessee’s pushback, the school has not yet received a formal notice of allegations from the NCAA, according to sources. The university declined to comment when contacted by ESPN. A source familiar with the NCAA space indicated a noticeable rise in NIL cases and portal issues, highlighting these as the primary areas of enforcement staff inquiry. The interconnection between NIL money and transfer activities is emphasized.
Plowman’s scathing letter to Baker outlines the university’s defense against the allegations. She states, “The NCAA’s allegations are factually untrue and procedurally flawed.” Plowman criticizes the NCAA enforcement staff for pursuing infractions cases as if student-athletes have no NIL rights and institutions have been willfully violating post-Alston rules. Alston refers to a case that likely set a precedent for NIL-related issues.
The letter also hints at the scope of the charges by defending Tennessee against a perceived “lack of institutional control.” Plowman expresses disbelief at the notion that the university, which was praised for exemplary leadership in July 2023, could be cited for a lack of institutional control just six months later.
The potential charge of lack of institutional control is significant, as it could be tied to the risk of Tennessee falling under repeat violator status. This status is determined within a five-year window from the “starting date of a Level 1 or Level II penalty stemming from a previous case,” as per NCAA bylaws. A repeat violator faces the possibility of additional penalties.
Plowman emphasizes that the university complied with the interim NIL policy and guidance set by the NCAA, pointing out that institutions couldn’t follow future guidance before it was given or interpreted. She adds that no Tennessee employee, the collective, or any athletes have violated any rules or guidance documents at the time the actions were taken.
Furthermore, Plowman criticizes the NCAA enforcement staff’s intended processing of the proposed allegations, citing legal and procedural defects, interpretive questions, and factual inaccuracies. She argues that the guidelines issued by the NCAA staff create an unworkable situation, particularly in the context of third-party collectives engaging with prospective student-athletes in NIL discussions while being restricted from recruiting-related conversations.
The University of Tennessee faces a potentially serious NCAA investigation into NIL violations, with the scope of the allegations spanning multiple levels. Tennessee has vehemently denied the allegations, with its chancellor criticizing the NCAA’s rules and enforcement approach in a strongly worded letter to the NCAA president. The outcome of this investigation could have significant implications for the university’s sports program and its standing within the NCAA.