With NCAA closing in, Tennessee suddenly in favor of labor rights for athletes

Self-serving actions could lead to right outcome
Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava celebrates with the championship trophy after winning the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl college football game of Tennessee versus Iowa at Camping World Stadium in Orlando on Monday, Jan. 1, 2024. Tennessee won the game 35-0. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Tennessee quarterback Nico Iamaleava celebrates with the championship trophy after winning the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl college football game of Tennessee versus Iowa at Camping World Stadium in Orlando on Monday, Jan. 1, 2024. Tennessee won the game 35-0. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

The University of Tennessee is a member of the NCAA. The organization claims to be dedicated to the welfare and academic success of college athletes. The NCAA’s actions over many decades show that it’s only real principle is ensuring that athletes are not classified as workers so schools can exploit their labor and marketing value.

Now UT’s leaders would have us believe that the school is a champion of labor rights for athletes. Coincidentally, this change of heart happened when Tennessee faced NCAA scrutiny for alleged recruiting violations related to name, image and likeness rights for athletes. Tennessee’s attorney general filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA this week that was joined by his counterpart from Virginia.

Tennessee’s newfound embrace of rights for athlete workers is about self-preservation. UT is in danger of facing repeat-offender penalties from the NCAA after its football program was sanctioned for more than 200 recruiting violations last year. The states’ attorneys are motivated by self-interest, too. Feeding the grievances and victimhood of college fan bases by taking on the NCAA is an easy political win.

These are cynical efforts by UT administrators and state lawyers. I don’t care because those selfish actions could lead to the right outcome – expanded labor rights for athletes. This is a rare case in which the self-interests of an NCAA school align with the best interests of the athletes. An attack on the NCAA’s exploitative “amateur” model from the inside also is the latest sign that its days thankfully are numbered.

The NCAA’s case against Tennessee is centered on the booster-funded NIL collective Volunteer Club, run by Sprye Sports Group. NCAA investigators allege that Tennessee’s collective violated guidelines against using NIL deals as a recruiting inducement. UT’s NIL collective made a high-profile deal with California quarterback recruit Nico Iamaleava last year.

Attorney Tom Mars released a statement on behalf of Sprye that said the agreement with Iamaleava “was fully consistent” with NCAA guidelines. The next day, state attorneys of Tennessee and Virginia filed a federal lawsuit against the NCAA in the Eastern District of Tennessee.

“The NCAA has started enforcing rules that unfairly restrict how athletes can commercially use their name, image, and likeness ... at a critical juncture in the recruiting calendar,” the lawsuit alleges. “These anticompetitive restrictions violate the Sherman Act, harm the States and the welfare of their athletes, and should be declared unlawful and enjoined.”

Tennessee attorney general Jonathan Skrmetti and Virginia counterpart Jason Miyares asked the court to restrict the NCAA from enforcing its NIL recruiting rules until the case is decided. I badly hope that the court agrees. Losing the ability to enforce the rules even temporarily would create more chaos, which is a necessary condition for true reform.

NCAA officials have struggled with NIL rules since losing a Supreme Court case in 2021. Soon after that, the NCAA announced the lifting of restrictions on athletes earning money for endorsements and sponsorships. The court left in place rules against “pay-for-play.” That’s known as “earning a salary for work” for everyone except college athletes.

However, Brett Kavanaugh, one of the court’s far-right justices, cast doubt on the legality of NCAA schools colluding to prevent athletes from earning market salaries. Kavanaugh wrote in a concurring opinion that it’s “not clear how the NCAA can legally defend its remaining compensation rules.” Kavanaugh’s opinion didn’t carry legal weight. But it was a warning to NCAA schools that the entire system is in danger of being ruled as illegal should they end up back in court.

Since then, the NCAA has attempted to make rules that restrict NIL rights some but not so much to that it creates legal jeopardy. Trying to thread that needle predictably hasn’t gone well. Before the attorneys general filed the lawsuit, Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman wrote a letter to NCAA president Charlie Baker in which she called the organization “failing” and criticized its NIL rules as impractical.

Plowman wrote that it’s “intellectually dishonest” for the NCAA to allow NIL collectives and businesses to meet with recruits and enter contracts while also prohibiting them from engaging in “conversations that would be of a recruiting nature.”

“This creates an inherently unworkable situation, and everyone knows it,” Plowman wrote.

Plowman is right. Of course, schools use NIL in recruiting. Of course, athletes consider NIL when making their decision. Of course, everyone knows it. And, lo and behold, it has not led to the demise of college football as predicted by college sports figures with a vested interest in the status quo.

NCAA attorneys made that ridiculous argument in court. Coaches whine about NIL because players have more leverage. Major media figures uncritically amplify the doomsday pronouncements. But college football was wildly popular in 2013 according to several metrics, including the biggest television audience for the College Football Playoff since 2018.

Unbridled greed will be the NCAA’s downfall. For decades, the courts and the public were willing to look the other way as schools exploited athletes. Then the money paid to schools for media-rights deals exploded. NCAA coaches, administrators, and school presidents could have shared that wealth with athletes. Instead, they stole the money generated by the workers that people pay to see, making it harder for others to look the other way.

After losing in the courts of law and public opinion, NCAA schools are desperately hoping that Congress will save them. The organization has spent millions of dollars to lobby lawmakers. NCAA officials went to Washington last year, Nick Saban in tow, to beg lawmakers for help. They’ve so far gotten a chilly reception. Propping up the NCAA system has become a loser even for politicians who normally align with business against labor.

University of Tennessee officials and Republican state attorneys usually are part of that alignment. Those officials suddenly are on the side of athlete rights now that the NCAA is threatening to punish UT for NIL recruiting violations. If UT’s self-serving actions are what it takes to cause the eventual downfall of the NCAA’s sham “amateur” system, then so be it.

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