A ruling on the amateurism of college athletes couldn’t come at a more ironic time for Tennessee football. The Vols are in the midst of being investigated by the NCAA, an investigation that began in December and led to the firing of Jeremy Pruitt and hire of Josh Heupel.
That investigation, which you can read about here, where it was first broken, basically centers around improper benefits given to players. Prominent among them was Eric Gray, who allegedly received cash payments. Gray, the Vols’ best offensive weapon, has since transferred to the Oklahoma Sooners along with elite offensive lineman Wanya Morris.
Six months later, with Heupel and Danny White now the new Tennessee football head coach and UT athletic director respectively, there has been no conclusion to that investigation. However, there is a conclusion to the NCAA anti-trust case.
The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the NCAA violates anti-trust laws by placing limits on education-related benefits schools can give to players. According to Dan Murphy of ESPN, this removes all limits to the compensations schools can provide players as long as it’s connected to their education in some way.
On the surface, that would seem like it has to impact whatever the NCAA finds in its investigation of the Vols, right? At this point, we don’t know for sure if there will be any stiff penalties for Rocky Top. However, could the Vols avoid all penalties by claiming that these were educational-related benefits to the players?
Honestly, that probably won’t work. For starters, we don’t know if this ruling will be retroactive. The NCAA rules were still in place and not yet struck down by the courts when the accusations against Tennessee football came out.
Also, and more importantly, the Vols used these rules violations to fire Pruitt for cause. If they go back and claim that these were educational-related benefits compliant with this new ruling, then it’s hard to say they have a case to not pay Pruitt’s buyout.
Then you’ve got the actual allegations that were made. If they were handing out bags of cash to players like Gray, as was alleged, can anybody really say that these were education-related benefits? Even with compensation likely, shouldn’t there be a more official way to do it?
All of this likely means that this Supreme Court ruling won’t affect the current NCAA investigation into UT. The best case the Vols have is the fact that they self-reported many of the problems and were under investigation by their own compliance department along with the NCAA. That could at least grant them some mercy.
Long-term, these investigations are likely to become obsolete. With the new ruling, schools will have much better means to legally pay players, and that will be a huge benefit to a program like Tennessee that is loaded with money and resources.
In this case, though, Tennessee football is likely not going to benefit. There are just too many factors working against them. If they do avoid real sanctions, it won’t be because of this ruling. It’ll be because of the generosity of the NCAA.