N.C.A.A. Investigates Booster Club Funding for College Sports

The University of Tennessee’s football program is under investigation for recruiting violations involving a donor collective, signaling an effort to rein in the role of outside money in college sports.

The N.C.A.A. is investigating the University of Tennessee’s football program for recruiting violations involving a group of outside donors, signaling an escalation of efforts to rein in the growing influence of money flooding into college sports, according to documents and people familiar with the case.

The investigation is focused on Tennessee’s high-profile donor collective, a group of alumni and wealthy boosters who support the team by channeling payments and other benefits to players. The inquiry is looking at, among other things, the group’s role in flying a high-profile recruit to campus on a private jet while the football team was wooing him, one person familiar with the case said.

Having the booster group pay for the trip by the recruit, Nico Iamaleava, now Tennessee’s starting quarterback, would be a violation of N.C.A.A. rules. The inquiry comes after the N.C.A.A. penalized Tennessee for earlier recruiting violations and signals the organization’s growing concern about the huge sums being injected into the nominally amateur world of college sports by donor collectives.

The case could have profound implications for the direction of high-profile programs across the country, especially in football, where outside money raised and disbursed to players by collectives has reshaped the economics of the game. News of the investigation into Tennessee’s athletic program was first reported by Sports Illustrated.

Officials at Tennessee are concerned that the investigation could result in a devastating blow to its football program, according to a person briefed on the matter. The program is already on probation for the earlier recruiting violations, and school officials are worried about the potential for the N.C.A.A. to take drastic action, like banning the team from postseason play and disqualifying players.

Facing that possibility, the school has hired several law firms and is considering a range of legal options to stave off any consequences.

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