Why is Tennessee’s Attorney General suing the NCAA?

Published 12:18 pm Monday, February 5, 2024

By Adam Friedman

Tennessee Lookout

One day after University of Tennessee-Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman confirmed an NCAA investigation into the school’s  football program, Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti flipped the script, announcing his office is suing the body overseeing college athletics. 

The crux of the attorney general’s lawsuit, filed jointly with the Virginia AG, concerns NCAA rules barring athletes from negotiating with a school’s name, image, and likeness (NIL) collective.

“College sports wouldn’t exist without college athletes, and those students shouldn’t be left behind while everybody else involved prospers,” said Skrmetti in a statement. “The NCAA’s restraints on prospective students’ ability to meaningfully negotiate NIL deals violate federal antitrust law. Only Congress has the power to impose such limits.”

Collectives are groups that raise money from a college’s wealthy alumni and boosters to compensate college athletes, often in amounts on par with professional athletes. These groups exploit a loophole in the NCAA’s NIL rules — enacted after several losing court battles — to allow athletes to sign endorsement deals. 

In reality, almost every top NCAA athletics program has an NIL collective, compensating athletes without requiring them to do anything, including advertising products. 

They’ve become most prominent in football, with the New York Times reporting tension emerging between the collectives and the Internal Revenue Service over their nonprofit status. Across the country, there are nearly 140 operating, with budgets approaching $10 million or more, according to the Times.

UT has two collectives, the for-profit Volunteer Club and Volunteer Legacy, a nonprofit. Spyre Sports Group manages both collectives.

Two years ago, Spyre helped UT land Nico Iamaleava, one of the top quarterbacks in college football’s 2023 class, by signing him to a deal worth $8 million, according to The Athletic.

Tim Meads, the press secretary for the Tennessee Attorney General, said their office had been investigating the NCAA for over a year, stating the suit was about protecting all student athletes, not just those from a particular school.

Very few details are available about the NCAA investigation into UT. But Plowman wrote a letter to the NCAA head Charlie Baker, criticizing the investigation and calling the NIL rules chaotic and hard to follow. 

“In short, the NCAA is failing,” Plowman said in the letter.

Gov. Bill Lee backed Plowman’s response. 

“I thank Chancellor Donde Plowman for taking a stand on behalf of all universities and student-athletes,” Lee said on X, formerly known as Twitter. “It’s time for the NCAA to establish clear rules in the interest of student-athletes, rather than try to retroactively enforce ever-changing name, image, and likeness guidance.”