University of Tennessee fined millions for cash payments to athletes

The NCAA punished the University of Tennessee football program for recruiting violations and direct cash payments to athletes, fining it $8 million and stripping scholarships for what it described as a culture of blatantly skirting rules in the hope of victories .

The NCAA Report ran through numerous examples, including “at least 110 inadmissible hotel stays” and “180 inadmissible meals” and regular cash payments — $5,000 here, $6,000 there — given directly to parents of recruits by former Tennessee Coach Jeremy Pruitt and others in the program, who worked to camouflage the payments from the athletic department’s official books. The value of the prohibited benefits totaled approximately $60,000, the report said.

Tennessee only avoided the harshest possible punishment, a post-season suspension, thanks to what the NCAA described as an “exemplary” response in cooperating with investigators.

The penalties announced Friday — which the school agreed to — pose a potential roadblock for a historic powerhouse that took a major step toward regaining its former glory in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference in 2022, winning at least 10 games and finishing in the top 10 in the Associated Press College Football Poll for the first time since 2007. The $8 million fine was intended to equal the money the university could earn from bowl appearances during the 2023 and 2024 seasons.

Pruitt, who was fired in January 2021 as Tennessee investigated its payment schedule, cannot be hired for six years without NCAA approval and would immediately be suspended for a year if hired within that period.

However, the lack of a postseason ban also heralds a potential change in the way the NCAA assesses violations, with a greater emphasis on punishing those directly involved in illegal activity.

The school’s chancellor and athletic department expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the ruling, emphasizing that the school can still compete.

“We recognize this was a serious matter, and the penalties we received from the Committee on Infractions are consistent with what we anticipated and negotiated with the NCAA enforcement staff last year,” said Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman in a statement published on the university’s website.

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

As part of the 2010 punishments against the University of Southern California football program for improper benefits received by running back Reggie Bush, the NCAA stripped USC of 30 scholarships over a three-year period. After averaging more than 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 bowl victories and zero national titles.

For a program like Tennessee, which is looking to recruit with powerhouses like Alabama and Georgia in the talent-rich SEC, even the smallest obstacle could stifle one of college football’s biggest turnarounds from last season. Under second-year coach Josh Heupel, the Volunteers raced to an 8-0 start and climbed to No. 2 in the AP poll heading into a road game against No. 1 Georgia, the reigning national champions.

Although Tennessee lost that game and would lose again two weeks later at unranked South Carolina, the team ended the season on a high note with a resounding victory over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

The program appeared poised to compete for the top of the SEC after more than a decade of subpar seasons — and nearly a quarter-century removed from its last national championship.

While justifying its decision on the range of penalties, the NCAA pointed to its new constitution, adopted in 2022, which states that it must seek to “not punish programs or student-athletes not involved in or implicated in the violation(s).”

When you compare Tennessee’s ruling to how the NCAA handled USC or the case of Oklahoma State men’s basketball, which was banned from the 2022 postseason after an FBI investigation into college basketball corruption, you can see how times have changed. That shift can be seen as a product of mounting public and legal pressure against the NCAA, according to Maureen Weston, a law professor at Pepperdine University.

“They’re changing so much because they just got bashed in the courts,” Weston said, adding that “there’s so much going on and so much criticism of the NCAA.”

When asked why the NCAA was imposing penalties on a coaching staff that was not involved in the violations, Kay Norton, president emeritus of the University of Northern Colorado and chief hearing officer for the infractions committee, said Tennessee was “not willing to even pretend to follow the rules.”

“Remember that the NCAA is concerned with student-athlete protection, but not necessarily with restrictions that could impact recruiters’ options in the future,” Norton said.

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