The strength of a newly revealed NCAA investigation into Tennessee athletics recruiting hinges in part on a flight quarterback Nico Iamaleava took to Knoxville when the heralded prospect was a high school student living in California.
Whether Iamaleava flew as a client of a sports collective that signs athletes to NIL deals or he traveled as a UT football recruit is likely a key factor in whether Tennessee broke any rules in the recruitment.
UT Chancellor Donde Plowman says UT can’t be held responsible for the actions of a sports collective that’s legally allowed to sign athletes to deals, and Plowman attacked the foundation of any investigation in a strongly worded email to NCAA President Charlie Barker obtained Tuesday by Knox News.
“It is intellectually dishonest for the NCAA staff to issue guidelines that say a third-party collective/business may meet with prospective student-athletes, discuss NIL, even enter into a contract with prospective student-athletes, but at the same time say that the collective may not engage in conversations that would be of a recruiting nature,” Plowman said in the email.
Whether the flight, first reported Tuesday by The New York Times, is a violation depends on when it occurred, who paid for it and whether any permissible contractual agreement with a collective was in place, Knox News has learned.
Iamaleava struck his NIL deal in early 2022 with Knoxville-based Spyre Sports Group, making him a client of the collective while still a junior in high school in California. The agreement came “independent of the University of Tennessee or anyone in its athletics program,” lawyer Tom Mars said Tuesday, on behalf of Spyre. Such contracts are permissible under California law, and no case has established whether being a client of the collective would trump the NCAA’s ability to monitor benefits of that partnership, especially in an era of evolving NIL rules.
Plowman told Barker, in essence, that recruiting would be pure chaos if legal NIL deals do not trump NCAA rules.
“Any discussion about NIL might factor into a prospective student-athlete’s decision to attend an institution,” she said. “This creates an inherently unworkable situation, and everyone knows it.”
If NIL deals supersede NCAA rules, Iamaleava’s status as a client of Spyre might have allowed him to take a flight on a private jet if paid for by the collective.
Spyre has signed more than 200 UT athletes across 11 sports.
Iamaleava’s father, Nic, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
“In early 2022, independent of the University of Tennessee or anyone associated with its athletics program, Spyre Sports entered into a mutually beneficial contractual relationship with Nico Iamaleava that involved a limited assignment of his NIL rights, no matter which school he chose to attend,” Mars said in the statement on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Such ‘representation agreements’ have become increasingly common. The parties agreed that their contractual rights and obligations would be governed by California law, which freely allows prospective college athletes to enter into such agreements.”
Iamaleava was Tennessee’s backup quarterback last season before starting UT’s 35-0 win against Iowa in the Citrus Bowl after starter Joe Milton opted out. Iamaleava was a five-star prospect in the 2023 recruiting class and the No. 3 prospect nationally in the 247Sports Composite.
Did Tennessee football commit NCAA violations to recruit Nico Iamaleava?
Iamaleava is widely believed to have received a lucrative NIL contract as a heralded prep prospect. He has never confirmed the deal nor spoken about it. In his first media appearance at UT in August, he dodged the topic.
Iamaleava committed to Tennessee in March 2022.
In May 2022, the NCAA reinforced to member schools that using NIL benefits as recruiting inducements violated its rules. At the time, the NCAA amended its policy with plans to retroactively investigate “improper behavior” and NIL collectives involved in recruiting players over the previous 10 months.
DONDE:Tennessee’s Donde Plowman slams NCAA as ‘morally wrong’ over NIL investigation, email shows
Why is the NCAA investigating Tennessee football and NIL?
The NCAA is investigating Tennessee for potential rules violations involving NIL benefits for athletes in multiple sports, including football, a source familiar with the situation told Knox News on Tuesday.
UT confirmed the existence of the investigation, which was first reported by Sports Illustrated. UT did not comment beyond that acknowledgment. A source with direct knowledge of the ongoing investigation told Knox News that UT feels “very strongly that it followed all NCAA guidance related to NIL.”
UT has not received a notice of allegations.
UT could face multiple level 1 and level 2 violations, a source with direct knowledge of the situation told Knox News. In her email, Plowman referenced the possibility that UT could face a charge of lack of institutional control, which is the most serious charge against a university. UT staff met with members of the NCAA enforcement staff Monday to discuss allegations the NCAA intends to bring against the university related to NIL. Plowman denied that any violations occurred.
Knox News reporter Adam Sparks contributed to this report
Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it