Sports

University of Tennessee Fined Millions for Cash Payments to Athletes

The N.C.A.A. punished the University of Tennessee football program for recruiting violations and direct cash payments to athletes, imposing an $8 million fine and taking away scholarships for what it described as a culture of brazenly skirting rules in hopes of chasing wins.

The N.C.A.A.’s report ran through numerous examples, including “at least 110 impermissible hotel nights” and “180 impermissible 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 forbidden benefits totaled about $60,000, the report said.

Tennessee only avoided the harshest possible penalty, a postseason ban, because of what the N.C.A.A. described as an “exemplary” response while cooperating with investigators.

The penalties announced on Friday — which the school agreed to — pose a potential roadblock for a historical powerhouse that took a big step in 2022 toward reprising its past glory in the ultracompetitive Southeastern Conference, winning at least 10 games and finishing in the top 10 of the Associated Press college football poll for the first time since 2007. The $8 million fine was designed to equal money that could be earned by the university from bowls during the 2023 and 2024 seasons.

Pruitt, who was fired in January 2021 as Tennessee investigated the payment scheme, cannot be hired without N.C.A.A. approval for six years and would be suspended immediately for one year if he were hired within that period.

But the lack of a postseason ban also signaled a potential shift in how the N.C.A.A. adjudicates infractions with more of a focus on punishing individuals directly involved in illicit activities.

The school’s chancellor and its athletic department expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the ruling — emphasizing its ability to still compete.

“We recognize this was a serious case, and the penalties we received from the Committee on Infractions are consistent with what we expected 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 hindered. The football program will see a reduction of 28 scholarships during the probationary period, though it was credited with 16 reductions it self-imposed during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years.

As part of the punishments against the University of Southern California football program in 2010 for improper benefits received by running back Reggie Bush, the N.C.A.A. stripped U.S.C. 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, U.S.C. won fewer than nine games a season from 2010 to 2019, with three bowl wins and zero national titles.

For a program like Tennessee, which jockeys for recruits with powerhouses like Alabama and Georgia in the talent-rich SEC, even the slightest impediment could stifle what had been one of college football’s biggest turnarounds last season. Under second-year coach Josh Heupel, the Volunteers raced out to an 8-0 start, climbing to No. 2 in the A.P. poll heading into a road matchup at No. 1 Georgia, the reigning national champion.

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

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

As the N.C.A.A. justified the reason for its decision on the series of penalties, it pointed to its new constitution, adopted in 2022, which says it must try to not “punish programs or student-athletes not involved nor implicated in the infraction(s).”

Comparing the Tennessee ruling with how the N.C.A.A. dealt with U.S.C. or the case of Oklahoma State men’s basketball, which was banned from the 2022 postseason after an F.B.I. investigation into corruption in college basketball, shows how times have changed. According to Maureen Weston, a law professor at Pepperdine University, that shift can be understood as the product of mounting public and legal pressure against the N.C.A.A.

“They’re changing so much because they’ve just been hammered in the courts,” Weston said, adding that “there’s so much going on and there’s so much criticism of the N.C.A.A.”

When asked why the N.C.A.A. levied penalties against a coaching staff that wasn’t involved in the violations, Kay Norton, president emeritus at the University of Northern Colorado and the chief hearing officer for the infractions panel, said that Tennessee had “demonstrated a unwillingness to even pretend to follow the rules.”

“Remember, the N.C.A.A. is concerned with protecting the student-athlete, but not necessarily with restrictions that may affect the ability of recruiters going forward,” Norton said.

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