Wed. Feb 21st, 2024

Tennessee’s warning shot at the NCAA on Tuesday is like a dope hit for the addiction to conflict that exists within us, especially those of us who spend a lot of time watching college sports. 

All the elements are there: An NCAA investigation into said big, powerful school that could result in significant penalties on its football program, the president of said big, powerful school calling out the NCAA for daring to enforce its rules and ultimately a series of grandiose threats, potential lawsuits and an existential debate about whether the NCAA should even exist at all. 

“The NCAA is failing,” Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman wrote to NCAA president Charlie Baker in a letter that was obtained by multiple media outlets after Sports Illustrated reported that the school was under investigation for NIL violations across multiple sports. 

Intrigue! Drama! Hostility!

Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava (8), wide receiver Kaleb Webb (84) and offensive lineman Jackson Lampley (75) celebrate a touchdown against Iowa during the 2024 Camping World Stadium.

This is what we love. And this is the big distraction of college sports, which has made it almost three years into the Name, Image and Likeness Era without a proper reckoning on its original sin. 

For all the murky NCAA guidance memos, worthless Congressional hearings and now a growing load of enforcement cases related to NIL activity, the greatest embarrassment of this entire system has not changed. 

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Regardless of what it was meant to be, NIL is now nothing more than a tax on fans. And the idea that athletic departments are using it as a crutch to duck what has become an obvious responsibility to operate like proper businesses is an outrage that nobody should stand for. 

Not fans. Not politicians. And if they had any self-respect or shame, not even the administrators who are getting paid millions of dollars to pass around collection plates like Megachurch pastors. 

It’s a farce. And if the NCAA and its members don’t have the courage to look it in the eye and build a financial model that fairly compensates athletes and sends the current legion of NIL hucksters they’ve created off to find their next grift, then they should all resign and find a new line of work. 

Because this issue – not who’s getting investigated or what the rules are — is the only thing that matters right now in the larger universe of college sports. Without an admission that they run a big business and college athletes are their employees, they are all doomed to a series of conflicts that result in rancor and frustration with no endgame in sight.

“Two and a half years of vague and contradictory NCAA memos, emails and ‘guidance’ about name, image and likeness has created extraordinary chaos that student-athletes and institutions are struggling to navigate,” Plowman wrote. 

She’s half-right. The last few years have been chaotic. And given a landscape where the NCAA can’t sneeze without catching a lawsuit, the rules around and NIL have indeed been a moving target.

But who’s actually creating the chaos here? 

Is it the NCAA, or is it the schools who are actively encouraging fans to send money to supposedly independent booster groups called “collectives” and then shirking any knowledge or responsibility for their actions when things go south?

One of the big issues in the Tennessee case, according to the New York Times, is whether Tennessee’s collective paid for star quarterback Nico Iamaleava’s recruiting trip, including flying him to campus on a private jet. 

Tom Mars, a college sports attorney representing the marketing firm and booster collective that struck deals with Iamaleava, issued a statement Tuesday night saying that the “mutually beneficial contractual relationship” dealt with a “limited assignment of his NIL rights, no matter which school he chose to attend.” 

In other words, he’s contending that Spyre Sports – a group whose Web site lists three young Tennessee graduates as its top officers and includes a prominent link to “Join the Volunteer Club” – entered into a financial relationship with a highly-rated high school quarterback from Southern California without any pretense that he was going to enroll at Tennessee.

Maybe that’s air-tight from a legal and contractual standpoint, but it shatters the common-sense meter into a million pieces. Are we really supposed to believe that the NCAA is the chaos agent in this story? 

But there are no good or bad guys here. 

Schools are flying too close to the sun on NIL and then complaining when the NCAA initiates infractions cases to Florida State and Tennessee, with lots more in the pipeline. The NCAA acts as if there’s a way to separate the real NIL from the collectives, which are very clearly operating as recruiting arms. Coaches are trashing their colleagues for tampering while they themselves are breaking rules by trying to recruit off the rosters of their rivals. And fans are either pining to go back to the old days (not going to happen) or rooting for the world to burn so that their favorite school can land the next star quarterback. 

They’re all full of it.

If the question is whether schools like Tennessee are breaking NIL rules – vague as they are – the answer is more likely yes than no. But if the question is whether the NCAA has a legal right to enforce its rules – any rules, really – the court system in this country has consistently said that it does not. 

All the while, what’s actually happening is that college administrators are begging fans to send in their hard-earned money so that they can keep up in recruiting – and the fans are obliging, even though none of this makes sense either economically or within the context of a functioning sport.

In other words, imagine if the Kansas City Chiefs sent a letter to their season ticket holders saying that in addition to the thousands of dollars they’re spending every year to watch the games, they need to send in another check so that the team can keep Patrick Mahomes from going to the Broncos. 

Any normal person would think that’s an absurd way to do business. What prevents it is a novel concept called a contract that binds Mahomes to the team through terms that are mutually agreed to and governed by a collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association, which also includes a salary cap to help ensure fair competition between teams. 

Because in the end, the NFL is a business. And highly-functioning businesses operate in ways that help the business function efficiently and profitably, which includes paying the employees. It’s a simple notion. Maybe one day, college sports can learn something from it. 

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