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  • Cole Nemes

The Latest Challenger to NCAA Dominance: The Volunteers

Courtesy of the Associated Press

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the sole governing body for major collegiate sports across the nation and has been so since 1906. With around 1,200 schools and roughly 520,000 athletes, the NCAA regulates everything from eligibility to financial aid, tournaments, and compensation. Recently, there has been a dispute when it comes to the third. For most of its history, the NCAA had restrictions about compensating athletes for their talents because the NCAA has always wanted to protect amateurism. From the NCAA’s point of view, if college athletes got paid, viewers would not be interested in college sports if they were more akin to professional athletes. This all changed with the Supreme Court ruling in Alston v. NCAA. Among many other things, Alston forced the NCAA’s hand in allowing athletes to be compensated for their performances. Name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals immediately became a boon for athletes, as they could now profit off of what the NCAA has been profiting off of for years: themselves.

However, the debate over athlete compensation is far from over. On January 31, Tennessee and Virginia filed suit against the NCAA for “trying to stop [the NIL] market from functioning.” The two states are referencing new policies made by the NCAA in January. These policies would forbid any “NIL entity” (defined as an individual, group of individuals, or an organization that donates money to be used for NIL compensation) to be in any contact with prospects until they sign a letter of intent with a school, practice with that school's team, or attends classes. Basically, potential NIL deals cannot be used to attract recruits to commit to a school. 

Tennessee and Virginia both fear that these new parameters around NIL deals and recruits would limit competition and naturally decrease NIL compensation to athletes. They also illustrated their reservations by comparing the current situation to how a coach looking for a new job cannot negotiate salary from a school until after he’s picked one. The Attorney General for Tennessee, Jonathan Skrmetti, has spearheaded the suit and also claims that these anti-competitive measures violate the Sherman Act, an antitrust law that also came into conversation during the Alston case.

The timing of this lawsuit, however,  was not arbitrary. It comes just one day after a Sports Illustrated article reported that the University of Tennessee was being investigated for violations related to name, image, and likeness regulations. The investigation revolves around Spyre Sports Group, which is UT’s main “NIL entity,” and current Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava. The first chapter begins back in November 2021, when Iamaleava and UT had their first unofficial meeting. Unofficial meetings require recruits to fund their transportation, but it was reported in a New York Times article that Iamaleava was flown out to Tennessee by a private jet. This article also reports that Spyre, who targets recruits desired by UT, facilitated the private jet for Iamaleava. This would be a blatant violation of NCAA rules, but there is an extensive gray area: Was Iamaleava flying as a client of Spyre or a UT recruit? 

Four months later, on March 4, 2022, Iamaleava signed a lucrative $8 million NIL deal with Spyre. Two weeks from then, Iamaleava committed to Tennessee and signed his letter of intent that following December. The issues arose when considering whether UT and Spyre used the NIL deal as an enticement to get Iamaleava to commit to the school. Tom Mars, a lawyer for Spyre, released a statement on the day that news of the investigation broke, defending the legitimacy of the NIL deal by claiming the deal did not constitute any inducement to Iamaleava to enroll at UT. The proceedings of the investigation have been overshadowed and stymied by the publicized lawsuit.

However, the tension hasn’t just been between the NCAA and Tennessee. Both the University of Florida and Florida State University were subject to NCAA investigations over similar issues about recruits potentially being allured by NIL deals – eventually hitting FSU with NIL disassociation, coaching suspensions, and a two-year probation for the football team. It is unclear whether FSU, Florida, or any college will join in the Tennessee or Virginia fight, but they can also reap the rewards without joining forces, depending on the outcome.

As for the fight itself, there were advances on February 13, at a preliminary injunction hearing where both sides were heard by U.S. District Judge Clifton Corker. Both sides also debated with the backdrop of a UT flag being hung from a crane in the nearby parking lot. Tennessee and Virginia’s legal team argued that the NIL rules were “unclear and harmful to student-athletes” and that recruits were making “uninformed decisions” about their future. On the other hand, NCAA counsel countered that there would be no harm to athletes, as there was a “robust market” for NIL deals after recruits officially chose their college.

Judge Corker made his decision ten days later and granted the preliminary junction. This monumental shift in NCAA policy will temporarily lift the organizations' rules and regulations about NIL entities contacting recruits. In other words, student-athletes are now able to discuss NIL deals before officially enrolling in a college or university. Although not permanent, the decision heavily swings the momentum in favor of the states, as Judge Corker noted that they have a “reasonable chance of winning their case.” With this ruling, this case becomes one of at least six ongoing antitrust lawsuits that the NCAA has been defending against. As for the next phase, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares called the decision “significant” when discussing further legal processes.

This legal battle is only one of the many crusades that have waged in the seemingly never-ending war against NCAA regulation. Even from the past year, with the Mel Tucker scandal and the Jim Harbaugh suspension, it seems that the NCAA cannot help but find itself enthralled in publicized controversy. Furthermore, Tennessee and Virginia have etched themselves into this history and although some people may recognize it only as a footnote, the final decision in this case could rattle the world of college sports similar to what Alston did not too long ago. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, the only thing next to ask is: what will the next controversy be for the NCAA?

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