I just encountered my favorite, new sports story of the year.
There’s a shift in the balance of power in both college and professional sports and it’s happening right before our very eyes. As recently as this year, nobody ever thought somebody could buy an entire sports league. It’s difficult enough to buy a team… but a league?!? We’re not talking about some random USFL, XFL or upstart Pickleball league either, one that sets up shop like a state fair only to be torn down once people lose interest.
We’re talking about the PGA Tour, which now belongs to of a handful of rich Saudi Arabian sheiks.
But that’s beside the point.
With the loosening of restrictions on what college athletic programs and their coaches can and can’t do, the NCAA, an institution that has perennially governed sport at its whim and for its own profit, now stands on shakier ground. All thanks to a Tennessee Attorney General who has a valid point.
Not long ago, I wrote about the suspension of Memphis basketball coach Penny Hardaway who got in trouble for entering a recruit’s family living room when the NCAA said he wasn’t supposed to. When that is exactly, we’re not sure but the two-game suspension was levied, nonetheless.
The University of Tennessee football program was also recently suspended by the NCAA. Wins were vacated, which is a concept that has always perplexed me. I’m not sure how games being miraculously erased from some NCAA almanac is supposed to hurt anyone’s feelings. Are we collectively pretending these games didn’t happen? They were played, right? How does “vacating” their results mean anything significant to the program at hand? They took away Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy as a penalty, but you’d be hard-pressed to convince anyone who watched him play football that year that he wasn’t easily the best athlete on the field. If I attended a football game that’s been symbolically and retroactively removed by the NCAA, yet I bought a souvenir at this game, does it magically disappear like Marty McFly’s family photo at the end of “Back to the Future?”
Which brings us back to Tennessee. I’m a Florida alum so anything remotely related to Tennessee’s prison-suit orange or checkerboard end zones makes me ill, but the school’s recent demonstration of brass balls has me cheering their praise.
When the NCAA told Tennessee that they’d vacate wins and punish the school for its alleged wrongdoing, the state’s Attorney General all but told them where to go, following that up with the statement that the NCAA is powerless and has no ground to stand on.
“Tennessee law prohibits the NCAA from imposing such a sanction and I will not hesitate to vindicate the rights of UT students to enjoy the full measure of their intercollegiate athletic opportunities. NCAA rules cannot supersede Tennessee law” retorted the state’s Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti.
Now that’s chutzpah! I’m no attorney, nor do I probably align politically with Skrmetti but more power to him for taking on an institution with which no one aligns.
Plenty of athletes, coaches and schools have spoken ill of the NCAA under their breaths over the years but few not named O’Bannon have had the nerve to tell them to go fuck themselves as they went about their business. It matters not what Tennessee did to get themselves into their current “vacation.” Other schools have most assuredly done worse and not got caught.
The school may or may not agree to the imposed sanctions but Skrmetti’s skirmish with the big bad NCAA symbolizes another chink in their armor and a continued shift in the balance of power in college athletics. Games will be played and those vacated games were played no matter what the NCAA would have anyone think.
Major college programs will continue to do what they do: empower their brand and chase young athletes that will help them do so. Meanwhile, we watch as the NCAA rides off further into its irrelevant sunset. Collectively, we cheer on all the above.