Thirty-six University of Tennessee male student-athletes were treated as “VIPs” from May to July at a Cumberland Avenue bar that was brought to light after a summer brawl involving numerous football players, according to the athletic department’s self-report of a secondary violation to the NCAA.
The student-athletes, 26 of whom were football players, were not required to pay cover charges on Thursday nights at Bar Knoxville when other patrons were required to pay $5-$10, depending on their age.
The News Sentinel learned of the secondary violation for improper benefits through an open records request to the university.
The secondary violation, coupled with another self-reported transgression involving improper electric transmissions, constitute the first known violations involving the UT football team since Derek Dooley took over as coach in January. Under Lane Kiffin in 2009, the Vols committed at least six secondary violations.
The in-house investigation — which was spearheaded by assistant athletic director Todd Dooley, who interviewed 34 of the 36 athletes and the bar’s co-owners, Allen and Sandy Morton — was prompted by Sandy Morton’s comments to reporters in the wake of a July 9 brawl that involved a number of football players and resulted in two arrests. Morton said the student-athletes were “VIPs” at the bar, which meant they did not have to pay a cover charge.
Although the bar also permitted other patrons, including all females and friends of bouncers, to enter free of charge, the policy constituted a violation of NCAA bylaw 18.104.22.168.6 because “the benefit was not advertised or provided to all UT students,” according to Todd Dooley’s report.
According to the bylaw, student-athletes are not permitted to receive preferential treatment, benefits or services “because of the individual’s athletics reputation or skill or pay-back potential as a professional athlete, unless such treatment, benefits or services are specifically permitted under NCAA legislation.”
None of the athletes involved received more than $70 in benefits, according to the report. Because none received more than $100 in benefits, the athletes were briefly declared ineligible until they paid back their share to a charity.
All football players involved paid back what they owed before the Sept. 4 season opener against UT Martin, according to the report. As of Sept. 3, when Todd Dooley filed the report, UT was still collecting money and planned to donate it to East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.
UT, citing the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, redacted all mentions of specific athletes in the documents provided to the News Sentinel.
Derek Dooley and men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl have both banned their players from attending Bar Knoxville since the July 9 incident, which left a Knoxville police officer unconscious, sent another patron to the hospital for multiple injuries and resulted in sophomore safety Darren Myles’ dismissal from the football team.
Freshman wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers was originally charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, but both charges have since been dismissed.
According to the report, the Mortons had implemented the VIP program “at least the past two years” and did so in accordance with “various groups and individuals in the community.” None of the 34 athletes whom Todd Dooley interviewed said he was treated as a VIP before May 2010, and all corroborated that they did not receive free or reduced priced food or drinks.
The Mortons were able to provide only May 2010-July 2010 attendance records.
Todd Dooley re-interviewed 10 of the athletes because they were either upperclassmen or had their names appear on the list “several times.” One basketball player, upon second thought, believed he might have received free admission “on two or three occasions over the past two years,” while the other nine stuck to their first account.
A common response from these athletes, according to the report, was that they “just heard of the ‘VIP program’ ” starting in May 2010.
Several of the athletes stated that they did not believe they had attended the bar as many times as their names appeared on the lists, which were printed and did not include signatures. Todd Dooley wrote that other, non-student athletes may have told bouncers that they were a certain student-athlete in order to receive “VIP” treatment, while it also appeared that “several individuals signed as student-athletes who were not actually student-athletes.”
The report concluded that the Mortons did not meet the definition of a “representative of its athletic interests” at the time because “no institutional member had or should have had knowledge of the ‘VIP’ program, the bar owners are not donors/booster club members, do not assist in recruiting or promote the athletics program.” The Mortons are now considered as such, according to the report, and have since received a cease and desist letter from the UT compliance office.
A member of UT’s compliance office attended a Cumberland Avenue Merchants Association meeting in September to “provide NCAA rules education.” That representative will continue to meet with the group on a semi-annual basis.
Andrew Gribble may be reached at 865-342-6327. Follow him at http://twitter.com/Andrew_Gribble and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/gribble.