Shocking: Young Tennessee Vols QB Nico Iamaleava Gets Into Trouble After Involving In…

Sources: Tennessee Could Face NCAA Probe for Multiple Sports NIL Violations

The Volunteers might suffer serious repercussions from a second, more extensive investigation. They were fined last summer for violations inside the football program.

Sports Illustrated has been informed by sources that the University of Tennessee is the subject of yet another “major” NCAA investigation over possible rules infractions. The case examines name, image, and likeness (NIL) advantages for players across a number of sports.

More than 200 rules violations in the football program resulted in penalties for the Volunteers last summer. The case was deemed “one of the worst the COI has seen” by the NCAA Committee on Infractions, which found 18 Level I infractions total, including about $60,000 in illegal inducements and incentives for recruits. The institution is now again under NCAA scrutiny, which may have serious repercussions.

Details are scarce on what Tennessee is potentially facing in the latest case, including the number of involved sports. The school acknowledged the investigation to SI, but declined further comment, other than to say it has not received a notice of allegations from NCAA Enforcement.

According to a New York Times report Tuesday, one element of the NCAA’s investigation is a collective using a private jet to fly heralded five-star quarterback recruit Nico Iamaleava to campus during his recruitment. Having a booster group pay for the trip is a violation of NCAA rules.

The NCAA also declined comment in a statement to SI. “With rare exceptions, the NCAA does not comment on current, pending or potential investigations due to confidentiality rules put in place by member schools,” associate director of communications Meghan Durham Wright said.

A source familiar with the inquiry tells SI that Tennessee does not believe it has committed any violations in the NIL realm. The source cited NCAA guidance in that evolving area as “vague and contradictory.”

Tennessee administrators met with NCAA Enforcement representatives Monday, according to a letter obtained by SI from UT chancellor Donde Plowman to NCAA president Charlie Baker. Plowman decried the actions of enforcement staff members, noting, “Regrettably, in this chaotic environment, the NCAA enforcement staff is trying to retroactively apply unclear guidance to punish and make an example of our institution and others …” Plowman asserts the NCAA’s procedure is flawed and that “some of the allegations are factually untrue.”

Although a formal notice of allegations has not been presented to Tennessee, Plowman indicates the serious nature of potential charges in her letter: “In fact, just last year, the Division I Committee on Infractions as well as the NCAA enforcement staff cited exemplary cooperation by the University of Tennessee and said we set the standard other schools should follow. It is inconceivable that our institution’s leadership would be cited as an example of exemplary leadership in July 2023, then as a cautionary example of a lack of institutional control only six months later.” Lack of institutional control is arguably the most serious institutional charge the NCAA can levy against a school and can yield major sanctions.

The Volunteers have one of the most prominent NIL collective programs in the country, the Volunteer Club, which is operated by Knoxville-based Spyre Sports Group. The Volunteer Club said it had more than 4,000 members as of early December, and the Knoxville News-Sentinel reported in September that Spyre Sports had struck deals with Tennessee athletes in 11 sports. It’s unclear whether any of those agreements are targets of the NCAA inquiry.

 

 

It is said that Tennessee’s most notable NIL contract involves Iamaleava, a five-star recruit from California in the Class of 2023. A five-star high school kid had agreed to a deal for up to $8 million, according to a 2022 report from The Athletic. However, neither the recruit’s identity nor the university he planned to attend were disclosed. Iamaleava was referenced in The Athletic article, but neither he nor his family have verified or disputed it. However, subsequent reports suggested that he was that player. Iamaleava made his debut as a public pitchman for the supplement firm Force Factor in March 2023.

Iamaleava was Tennessee’s backup quarterback in 2023, appearing in five games and accounting for 385 total yards and five touchdowns. He started for the Volunteers in their Cheez-It Citrus Bowl victory over Iowa, accounting for four touchdowns, and is regarded as the program’s rising star for 2024.

 

Despite the egregious nature of the football violations in the previous case, the Committee on Infractions chose not to hit Tennessee with a postseason ban for the 2023 season, citing a relatively recent aversion within the NCAA membership to penalizing athletes who were not involved or implicated in the infractions. The committee said it was following membership guidance and “reserving postseason bans for Level I cases that lack exemplary cooperation” by the school under investigation. Tennessee was given credit for exemplary cooperation in that case, having fired then-coach Jeremy Pruitt and performed an extensive in-house investigation.

Many believed that signaled the end of the NCAA doling out postseason bans, which had been considered the harshest penalties at the NCAA’s disposal. But could that change in this instance, in what could be a blatant “repeat violator” case? That’s the NCAA’s nomenclature for a school that commits a Level I or II violation within five years of starting a penalty from a previous violation—and this would be two cases in a much shorter period of time.

Instead of a postseason ban last year, the NCAA administered other sanctions to Tennessee. The school was fined more than $8 million—the equivalent of two years of bowl revenue—had a long list of recruiting restrictions and vacated 11 victories in 2019 and ‘20. Pruitt was given a six-year show-cause penalty that should make him all but impossible to hire at the NCAA level during that time period.

NCAA Enforcement has at least twice progressed a key case to the point of possible punishment, after criticism for its inability to enforce the rules in the NIL/transfer portal era. An earlier conclusion to an infractions case between the NCAA and Florida State resulted in a three-game penalty for an assistant coach on the Seminoles and a three-year disassociation from the FSU sports program for a booster associated with the Rising Spear collective.

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