The University of Tennessee fined millions in cash payments to athletes

The NCAA sanctioned the University of Tennessee football program for recruiting violations and direct cash payments to athletes, imposing an $8 million fine and pulling scholarships for what it called a culture of brazenly skirting the rules in hopes of chasing wins.

NCAA report Many examples were shown, including “Not less than 110 hotel nights not allowed,” “180 meals not allowed,” and regular cash payments—$5,000 here, $6,000 there—made directly to parents of recruits by Former Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt and others in the program, who worked to disguise payments from the athletic department’s official books. The report said that the value of the prohibited benefits amounted to about $60,000.

Only Tennessee avoided the harshest possible penalty, a postseason ban, due to what the NCAA called a “exemplary” response while cooperating with investigators.

The penalties announced Friday — and approved by the school — are a hurdle for a historic powerhouse that in 2022 took a huge step toward rekindling its former glory in the highly competitive Southeastern Conference, winning at least 10 games and finishing in the top 10. College football poll conducted by the Associated Press for the first time since 2007. The $8 million fine is designed to equal the money the university could earn from tournaments during the 2023 and 2024 seasons.

Pruitt, who was fired in January 2021 while Tennessee investigated the payment plan, cannot be hired without NCAA approval for a six-year term and will be immediately suspended for one year if hired within that period.

But the lack of postseason bans also signaled a potential shift in how the NCAA adjudicates offenses with a greater focus on punishing individuals directly involved in illegal activities.

The principal of the school and its sports department expressed their satisfaction with the results of the ruling – stressing their ability to continue competing.

“We realize this was a serious case, and the penalties we received from the infractions committee are consistent with what we expected and negotiated with the NCAA’s enforcement team last year,” He said Tennessee State Chancellor Dondy Plowman in a statement posted on the university’s website.

Tennessee can still compete for a conference or national championship, but its recruiting will be handicapped. The football program will see 28 scholarship cuts during the probationary period, although it took 16 self-imposed cuts during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years.

As part of sanctions against the USC football program in 2010 for improper benefits it received by running back Reggie Bush, the NCAA stripped USC of 30 scholarships over three years. After averaging over 10 wins per season from 2000 to 2009, and winning six bowl games and two national championships, USC won fewer than nine games per season from 2010 to 2019, with three tournament wins and no national titles.

For a program like Tennessee, which is fielding recruits with powerhouses like Alabama and Georgia in a talent-rich SEC, even the slightest handicap could stifle what was one of the biggest turnarounds in college football last season. Under second year head coach Josh Hoebel, the Volunteers raced to an 8-0 record, climbing to No. 2 in the AP Poll heading into a road game at No. 1 Georgia, the reigning national champion.

Although Tennessee lost that game, and again lost to disorganized South Carolina two weeks later, the team finished the season on a high note with a landslide victory over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

The program looked ready to compete at the top of the SEC after more than a decade of sub-par seasons—and nearly a quarter-century cleared of its last national championship.

As the NCAA justified the reason for its decision on the chain of penalties, it pointed to its new constitution, adopted in 2022, which states that it must try not to “punish programs or student-athletes who are not engaged or engaged in the offense(s).”

Comparing Tennessee’s ruling to how the NCAA handled USC or the case of Oklahoma State men’s basketball, which was banned from the 2022 season after an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball, shows how times have changed. According to Maureen Weston, a law professor at Pepperdine University, this shift can be understood as a product of mounting public and legal pressure against the NCAA

“They change a lot because they’ve been knocked on the courts,” Weston said, adding that “there’s a lot going on and there’s a lot of criticism of the NCAA.”

When asked why the NCAA sanctioned coaching staff who were not involved in the violations, Kay Norton, chair emeritus at the University of Northern Colorado and chair of the hearing on the commission on infractions, said Tennessee had “showed an unwillingness to even pretend to follow the rules.”

“Remember, the NCAA is concerned with protecting student-athletes, but not necessarily with restrictions that might affect recruits’ ability to move forward,” Norton said.