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Why Tennessee’s deal with QB Nico Iamaleava no longer so great for the Vols

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There’s only one reason that Tennessee football players are flocking to the transfer portal like moths to a flame. 

Money.

And there’s only one player that has led to all of this.

Freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava.

Now, before you start blaming Iamaleava, don’t. It’s not his fault he asked for, was offered and will receive a reported $8-million for four years at Tennessee, although that number may be slightly inflated. Nevertheless, that’s quite a contract for a player that had never taken a college snap when he was said to have agreed to the deal. However, to say the deal was “team friendly” would be a flat-out lie. That’s why Tennessee’s entire secondary and one of its best players in its front seven are in the transfer portal. Iamaleava may have been worth it, but there was no need for those that put the deal together to crow about it.

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To offer a quick disclaimer, I’m all for players receiving money during their playing days because they contribute so much to the university. In fact, Off The Hook Sports pays Tennessee center Cooper Mays and tight end Jacob Warren for weekly podcasts appearances. However, I’m not paying either anywhere close to $8-million. That’s not financially feasible and, for Tennessee, neither is paying every player like they’re an NFL Pro Bowler instead of just a starter in the SEC.

It may seem strange to a layman like me with the numbers being bandied about, but there is a limit to how much Tennessee boosters can pay. Someone should have told that to whomever leaked Iamaleava’s deal to the media, whether that was him, his family, the University of Tennessee or the Spyre Group, which was the most likely culprit. That one little leak may undermine all the work that Tennessee coach Josh Heupel has done to build a championship-worthy roster. I’m all for breaking news, but some things need to be kept under wraps. Instead, Iamaleava’s deal was celebrated as if he’d won the Heisman Trophy before he even won the Vols’ starting quarterback job.

It’s common practice to look at a current player entering the transfer portal and blow him off as easily replaceable. That doesn’t make any sense. According to Tennessee’s coaches, who many believe are the second-coming of General Robert Neyland, the players in question were better than their backups or they would have been backups themselves. Sure, Heupel may run some players off, but that shouldn’t be the norm moving forward since he recruited them, either out of high school or as a transfer.

Players can return from the transfer portal to Tennessee if Heupel deems it permissible. If some, most notably defensive end Tyler Baron, don’t return, then Tennessee will have to use NIL funds to land a replacement. If Baron returns, the Vols will have to have an NIL deal in place for his grand return to Rocky Top. As of now, no parades have been scheduled.

Tennessee isn’t the only school dealing with transfer portal issues. However, because of the Iamaleava deal, the Vols seem to be the only college program that are dealing with pay-for-play issues while harboring championship hopes. Florida is a train wreck when it comes to the transfer portal because they’re simply not a good program currently. Elon Musk could become a rabid Gator booster and things would change rapidly in Gainesville. NIL can build and destroy any program in the nation and its presence is dealing a pretty big body blow to the Vols right now. 

Tennessee needs to position itself more like its SEC rivals that are regularly vying for championships. There are more reasons to attend a school than just money, but the Vols lost that public relations battle long ago. Want to prepare yourself for the NFL and win championships? Go to Tuscaloosa or Athens. Want to get paid? Knoxville is the the place for you.

Of course, no one that has been associated with Tennessee athletics for any reasonable amount of time should believe that the Vols can only offer cash. There are also facilities, tradition and, well, a bunch of other things that don’t spend as well as a fully stocked debit card.

The influx of NIL cash was supposed to allow players to have more of a social life, but in some cases it’s being looked at as winning the lottery. Where’s the motivation, other than from within, to continue to improve, succeed and make big-time money in the NFL when there’s nothing small about making $8-million in four years? Moreover, where is the common sense amongst the players in question? Perhaps they’ve been too affected by those millions that so many players are reportedly getting. I’m sorry to the 100 or so Tennessee defensive backs that have entered the transfer portal, but even as a starter, you’re not worth as much as Iamaleava.

It’s important to note that players and schools have reason to exaggerate the payments in question. Some people like to say they have more money than they do, especially schools that are trying to lure prospects with a bank account that could purchase a small island.

Simply put, the current NIL structure isn’t working and won’t work longterm. Why? Because there are no limits and there is no transparency. Now, I’m not a fan of limiting what someone can make and that will undoubtedly lead back to more impermissible, under-the-table payments, but as for the transparency? That’s something the NCAA needs to work on. Based on the governing body’s track record, I’d say that gets handled by 2048. The NCAA – if it even really still exists – moves at a pace that would make a snail blush.

Here’s another possible remedy. Players simply can’t simply enter the transfer portal to determine their worth. Once they enter, they’re as gone as the concept of amateurism. That may sound harsh from someone who believes players should be paid, I also think future players should have the same sort of facilities and support that current players have and that is very much in doubt since the University of Tennessee has a new competitor for Vol dollars.

Tennessee and the collectives in play are essentially competing against themselves. There are two different entities asking for money from the same people to either build facilities or stockpile a roster. At what point are facilities and, potentially, recruiting budgets affected because the funds once used to keep the university in tip-top shape are used to make sure a player has enough to start his 401K.

No one should blame Iamaleava. I don’t know of many people that would turn down millions if it were offered to them. However, whoever decided that a mega-pay day was something to crow about needs to re-think what they allow to go public. Maybe the Vols will learn that this go-round after being the poster boy for spending NIL money on transfers less than a year ago.

Yes, NIL is an advantage for Tennessee that should be used and those funds are a part of what has made the Vols relevant again. However, if the Vols want to be great, they’ll have to build their roster from the high school ranks and develop great players while in college. That will attract top talent and, with some discretion, there will be enough NIL money to keep everyone happy. That’s not happening right now. Tennessee’s biggest recent asset, NIL, has become it’s highest hurdle to achieving its true goals, which should be winning a championship and not just getting rich.

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