Tennessee officials are deeply concerned that the investigation could result in a devastating blow to the school’s 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 concerned that the N.C.A.A. could 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.
At the heart of the investigation are donor collectives, which are organized groups of alumni and other boosters who donate money to support teams. They have become a major and growing force in college sports in the past several years by exploiting a new system set up to allow players to benefit from endorsements, known as name-image-likeness deals, or N.I.L.
Collectives increasingly arrange for athletes to be paid sums that rival what professionals make. Iamaleava, Tennessee’s quarterback, has a deal with the school’s collective that may be worth $8 million. After playing a limited role for most of this past season, he became the team’s starter in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day, leading Tennessee to a 35-0 victory over Iowa.
At many Division I schools, collectives, while technically not affiliated with the universities they support, have become closely integrated into recruitment of high school students and, in an era when athletes can easily transfer from one school to another in search of better opportunities, in providing lucrative deals to retain star players.