Last week, Tennessee suspended its head baseball coach, Tony Vitello, for the Volunteers' weekend series against Dayton. While the announcement didn’t come with a whole lot of additional details, anyone who followed college baseball could’ve easily ascertained the reasoning why. At the time of Vitello’s suspension, star transfer Maui Ahuna had yet to be cleared by the NCAA to play for the Volunteers after transferring from Kansas. Tennessee cited NCAA bylaw for preventing any further details from being released, but one could easily presume that a potential tampering violation was cause for the suspension.
The transfer portal has been a hotly debated topic in college athletics over the past few years, especially in conjunction with the advent of NIL. Personally, I am a proponent of it and believe athletes should be able to move to another school while maintaining their eligibility. Technically, schools and coaches aren’t allowed to contact or recruit athletes until they are officially in the portal. However, it would be naïve to think that everyone is abiding by those rules. Quite frankly, it’s certainly possible that if a school or coach waits that long, it might be too late to have a real chance at landing certain transfers. Simply put, the portal lends itself to tampering. While many coaches across multiple sports are believed to be participating, Vitello is the first to serve any sort of suspension for it in recent times.
At the conclusion of the football season, Washington State football coach Jake Dickert sounded off about the tampering epidemic, saying “There’s more tampering going on than you could ever imagine. We’ve had guys contact our players’ parents. We had a coach from another school contact one of our players and offer them NIL. A coach! So there are more things going on behind the scenes that you can’t even imagine. You can’t even imagine the things that are happening right now to try and pry our players away from this place. And it’s stunning, it’s amazing, it’s the new thing that I guess comes with this portal transformation. But it’s not right. And who’s going to regulate it? Who’s regulating this stuff?’
Well, the answer to who’s regulating tampering is supposed to be the NCAA. However, proof of tampering can be difficult to undercover as many conversations occur through back channels, and high school coaches, boosters, friends, or other intermediaries aren’t directly involved with programs. Nonetheless, the NCAA and coaches themselves have a choice. Do they want to take an aggressive stand against tampering? Or do they want to turn a blind eye and let the status quo stand?
While NIL and transfer portal tampering are two issues in and of themselves, they are often intertwined in actuality. In the act of tampering, a school can offer NIL money to a potential recruit playing at another program. I bring this up because it appears like the NCAA is showing signs of cracking down on NIL for the first time since its inception in the summer of 2021.
Over the past few months, the NCAA has begun the process of bulking up its NIL enforcement staff. In addition, they passed a new “NIL presumption bylaw” that shifted the burden of proof from the NCAA’s enforcement staff (which previously had to prove a violation occurred) to the member school accused of rule-breaking (which will now have to prove that no violation occurred). Just last week, they handed down its first official NIL punishment on the University of Miami women’s basketball program. Although minor in impact, the penalties show that the NCAA is showing signs of at least some regulation to the current landscape. Whether or not they will be successful in doing so is certainly up for debate and litigation possibilities from accused schools/boosters are definitely in play.
With the sudden appetite to regulate NIL, will the NCAA take the same approach when it comes to transfer portal tampering? You could go around the country and ask hundreds of coaches their opinions and the large majority would hope that they do. Sure, there might be some coaches at high-profile programs who’ve benefitted from it so far, but quotes like Jake Dickert’s are not uncommon across several sports these days.
But how could the NCAA make a stand against tampering? Again, as I mentioned before, it won’t be easy at all. In nearly every instance of tampering, there won’t be tangible proof for schools to take to the NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. Could the NCAA use its “presumption” approach where it forces rumored violators to definitively prove there was no wrongdoing? Sure, but that sounds like a complicated mess to sort through.
To truly attack the issue at hand, I think the coaches need to take the lead. If coaches are truly upset about tampering, then the onus might be on them to not only refrain from doing so but more importantly, report to the NCAA when others do. The NCAA has a memo on tampering that stresses that "in order to evaluate and determine if tampering occurred, reporting is key." So instead of lamenting the concept of tampering, coaches should go straight to the NCAA when they have sufficient evidence, like how UTSA football coach Jeff Traylor threatened in this tweet.
Yes, the coaching community is oftentimes a tight-knit group that probably doesn’t want to directly call out their peers. However, if they truly want to address this issue, it’s on them to report violations. The NCAA is the easy punching bag for administrators, coaches, and fans to place the blame on. But when it comes to tampering, I believe they need help from their coaches.
Tony Vitello is the first coach to serve any sort of suspension for a potential tampering violation in the Transfer Portal/NIL. It will be interesting to see if his case is an outlier or the first of many as the college athletics landscape continues to evolve.
Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5