Tennessee investigation raises questions, but don’t ask if it’s a big deal — it is

University of Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman is the most popular figure in Tennessee Volunteers sports this week. She vaulted past most of the football team’s 21st Century quarterbacks with one scathing letter.

It was addressed Monday to NCAA president Charlie Baker in regard to an investigation that is focused in part on the Vols’ current starting quarterback, and it is more than 1,100 words of controlled fury. Plowman writes that the NCAA is “failing” in managing the chaos of college athletes earning money from their names, images and likenesses, and “morally wrong” in alleging wrongdoing on the part of UT in this space.


Tennessee under NCAA investigation for NIL violations

It’s hard to argue, absent much detail on the allegations, with Plowman’s points. Also, it should be impossible to read her letter and come away thinking this is no big deal for Tennessee. Don’t make that mistake.

“It is inconceivable that our institution’s leadership would be cited as an example of exemplary leadership in July 2023,” she writes, referring to the prior NCAA investigation into former UT football coach Jeremy Pruitt, “then as a cautionary example of a lack of institutional control only six months later.”

Check those four key words again. “Lack of institutional control.” That’s the most serious charge a university can face in such matters, and this university just managed to dodge a postseason ban for its football team despite 18 Level I violations under Pruitt — in one of the most egregious and sloppy cheating scandals on record, carried out from 2018 to 2021, before NIL. Back when some in the general public still cared about improper inducements in college athletics.

Based on the lawyerly care this letter surely received before being fired off, I don’t think Plowman is accidentally introducing that term. So, “Rah Rah, Donde,” Vols fans? Sure. Also, cheer, cheer, for more lawyerly care. This is hard to predict. Imagine a 2025 season with that celebrated quarterback — Nico Iamaleava — leading a team that could do damage in the 12-team College Football Playoff but is banned from participating in it.

In which case the 2023 postseason ban that the NCAA infractions committee didn’t give the UT football program in July (instead going with five years of probation and an $8 million fine) would be preferable in retrospect. Based on two school sources I spoke with Tuesday, this investigation, which was first reported by Sports Illustrated, still carries a fair amount of unknown — there’s no notice of allegations yet — and is being taken very seriously.

To me, Plowman’s letter is in part an appeal to a general public that can’t possibly feel the same way. Sure, Vanderbilt fans and Alabama fans and all others who hate Vols orange want this prosecuted to the max. But anyone who objectively follows college athletics has to work really hard to summon outrage over a private plane bringing Iamaleava to the UT campus during his recruitment.

The New York Times reported that plane, provided by Knoxville-based NIL collective Spyre Sports, is part of the investigation and would be a violation because NIL collectives are subject to the same rules as boosters. But that didn’t become official until May of 2022, nearly two months after Iamaleava had committed to UT. And even then, the Division I Board of Directors deemed it “guidance.”

Board chair and Georgia president Jere Morehead said in a statement at the time that transgressions from the previous 10 months — the infancy of NIL — could potentially be punished, but only if they were “outrageous.”

“While the NCAA may pursue the most outrageous violations that were clearly contrary to the interim policy adopted last summer,” Morehead wrote, “our focus is on the future.”

I’m not seeing anything outrageous or forward-thinking in this situation. Not yet, anyway. I am seeing a strange lack of communication.

Baker has come off sharp and flexible in general so far, compared with overmatched predecessor Mark Emmert. But UT responded to an open-records request by The Athletic with communications from Plowman’s office to Baker’s office going back to Dec. 15, shortly after a source said the university learned of the investigation.

Requests for Plowman and Tennessee AD Danny White to meet with Baker, in person or on video conference, were submitted multiple times and finally rejected after the first was ignored and the second was met with an offer to meet with Stan Wilcox, NCAA executive vice president of regulatory affairs. A Dec. 21 UT response asked to “let us know if (Baker) changes his mind in the new year,” and a UT spokesman confirmed the NCAA did not come back with a written response.

Plowman did get more information at some point, though, and wrote her letter Monday. The story broke Tuesday. Among the responses was a statement from Spyre Sports attorney Tom Mars, who pointed out the absence of UT language in Iamaleava’s NIL deal and wrote that it was “fully consistent with then existing NIL ‘guidelines.’”

And Plowman’s takedown of the “intellectually dishonest” NCAA has Vols fans lined up in lockstep against that evil NCAA.

Which makes this a good time to remind them that they are lined up against an organization of member institutions, one of which is UT, and that the member institutions come up with the rules and all expect each other to follow them.

It’s not like the NCAA is a rogue FBI agent poking around and harassing an adult kickball league for no reason. The NCAA was put in charge of the kickball league, and people get mad when it enforces rules on them and/or doesn’t on others.

College sports leaders have messed a lot of things up, but NIL on its own is one of its best developments. It needs more clarity and structure and less direct correlation with roster movement. Until things get there, it seems communication and collegiality would be a more effective NCAA strategy than making an example of someone.

If Tennessee’s transgressions aren’t truly “outrageous,” significant punishment would be exactly that. And it might get lawyerly around here.

(Photo of coach Josh Heupel embracing quarterback Nico Iamaleava after Tennessee defeated Iowa in the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)

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