Here’s Why the Tennessee Punishment Isn’t as Bad as It Sounds

The punishment sends a clear message about cooperation

Neyland Stadium
The NCAA penalized the Tennessee football program — but not as much as they could have.
Eakin Howard/Getty Images

The NCAA just announced a series of punishments against the Tennessee Volunteers football program for a number of recruiting violations that took place in 2019 and 2020. Among those punishments is the vacating of every win the team had during the two seasons in question. That probably seems like a big deal — and, to an extent, it is — but it’s also not nearly as severe as one might expect for what the NCAA’s official announcement termed “18 Level I violations — encompassing more than 200 individual infractions.”

Turns out there’s a reason for that.

As The Athletic’s David Ubben pointed out in a recent article on the NCAA’s decision, many of the harshest penalties were reserved for former head coach Jeremy Pruitt, on whose watch the recruiting violations took place. Among the penalties is one that specifically addresses Pruitt, connecting him to a six-year show-cause order. “Should the head coach become employed in an athletically related position at an NCAA school during that show-cause order,” the NCAA writes, “he shall be subject to a suspension from 100% of the first season of his employment.”

As ESPN’s Chris Low notes, Tennessee’s 2019 and 2020 wins being turned into losses does not mean a reversal of those games’ results. In other words, Low writes, “the opponents in those games are granted wins.” Also notable in the NCAA’s ruling? Tennessee will not be barred from post-season games.

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The reason for this is relatively simple: Tennessee responded quickly when they learned of potential violations, and the NCAA is balancing punishment for the violations with leniency for the school’s rapid response.

“Tennessee’s cooperation throughout the investigation and processing of this case was exemplary by any measure. Although this case involved egregious conduct, [Tennessee’s] response to that conduct is the model all institutions should strive to follow,” the panel overseeing the case said in a statement.

The message is clear for other colleges and universities: follow Tennessee’s lead if you notice something amiss and your penalty might be mild. Opt for a coverup and things might take a much bleaker turn.

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