NCAA sued over NIL rules after Tennessee football investigation

The attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA on Wednesday that challenged its ban on the use of name, image and likeness compensation in the recruitment of college athletes, and in response to the association's investigation of University of Tennessee.

The lawsuit filed in the Eastern District of Tennessee seeks to undercut NCAA rules against recruiting inducements and claims the association is "enforcing rules that unfairly restrict how athletes can commercially use their name, image and likeness at a critical juncture in the recruiting calendar."

"These anticompetitive restrictions violate the Sherman Act, harm the States and the welfare of their athletes, and should be declared unlawful and enjoined."

Tennessee AG Jonathan Skrmetti and Virginia's Jason Miyares followed up by asking the court for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction by Feb. 6 that would prohibit the NCAA from enforcing NIL recruiting rules while the lawsuit plays out.

The NCAA released a statement that did not directly address the Tennessee investigation, but did defend enforcement of recruiting rules -- which are made by member schools.

"This legal action would exacerbate what our members themselves have frequently described as a 'wild west' atmosphere, further tilting competitive imbalance among schools in neighboring states, and diminishing protections for student-athletes from potential exploitation," the NCAA said. "The NCAA remains firmly committed to protecting and expanding student-athletes' NIL rights and opportunities. However, our membership has steadfastly supported the prohibition on impermissible recruiting contacts, booster involvement in recruiting prospects and the use of NIL offers as recruiting inducements."

The latest legal attack on the NCAA came a day after the University of Tennessee's chancellor ripped the association for investigating the school for potential recruiting violations related to NIL deals struck between athletes and a booster-funded and run organization that provides Volunteers athletes a chance to cash in on their fame.

The NCAA already is facing a lawsuit by a group of state attorneys general challenging the association's transfer rules, plus it is the defendant in antitrust suits targeting employment status for athletes and billions in television revenue that schools and conferences make off big-time college sports.

NCAA President Charlie Baker and college sports leaders have been pleading for federal lawmakers to regulate NIL compensation and provide an antitrust exemption that would allow the association to govern without constantly being dragged into the court.

Earlier this month, the NCAA approved a set of NIL regulations aimed at creating transparency in the market for athletes and protecting them from potential bad actors.

Meanwhile, Baker also is pushing for rule changes that would allow schools to bring NIL activities in-house and even allow some schools to directly pay their athletes through trust funds.

On Tuesday, it was revealed the NCAA was investigating Tennessee and The Vol Club, an NIL collective run by Spyre Sports Group. Tennessee's recruitment of five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava from California and his NIL contract with Spyre is among the deals receiving scrutiny from the NCAA.

Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman wrote a scathing letter to Baker shortly after school officials met with NCAA representatives to discuss the allegations earlier this week. She said leaders of collegiate sports owe it to students and their families to act in their best interest with clear rules -- and the NCAA is nowhere close to providing that.

"Instead, 2½ years of vague and contradictory NCAA memos, emails and 'guidance' about name, image and likeness [NIL] has created extraordinary chaos that student-athletes and institutions are struggling to navigate," Plowman wrote in the letter released Tuesday. "In short, the NCAA is failing."

The university's president and athletic director and the governor of Tennessee had her back Wednesday morning.

Athletic director Danny White shared the state attorney general's post of the lawsuit on social media within 20 minutes, writing that he appreciated Skrmetti standing up for the rights of athletes.

"At Tennessee, we are always going to work to support our student-athletes' rights and give them all the tools needed to succeed on and off the field," White tweeted. "This is what strong leadership looks like!"

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee also applauded the University of Tennessee for being "nothing but forthcoming with the NCAA."

"And I thank Chancellor Donde Plowman for taking a stand on behalf of all universities and student athletes," Lee said in a statement.

Plowman was cheered by Tennessee fans during a pregame ceremony Tuesday night before the fifth-ranked Volunteers lost in men's basketball to South Carolina.

Facing pressure from numerous states legislatures, the NCAA lifted its ban on athletes profiting from their names, images and likenesses in 2021 but did so with no detailed rules and regulations.

The association still had in place an interim NIL policy that fell back on previous broad rules against recruiting inducements, pay-for-play and boosters being involved in recruiting of athletes. The NCAA issued several clarifications of the policy and guidance to members over the next 18 months, including identifying third-party entities promoting a school's athletic department as boosters.

The lawsuit suggests that even those rules break antitrust laws.

"The NCAA's NIL-recruiting ban violates federal antitrust law, thwarts the free market, and unfairly limits student-athletes," Miyares, the Virginia AG, wrote on social media. "We're taking them to court."