At least one hostess is alleged to have driven nearly 200 miles to James F. Byrnes High School in South Carolina and held up a sign encouraging players to join the Vols. Two of Byrnes' standout defensive players, Brandon Willis and Corey Miller, have committed to Tennessee. Both men made their commitment public on September 12 in the wake of a visit to Tennessee's campus for the UCLA football game.
Is the NCAA's review significant or just capturing public attention due to the intersection of a high profile program with attractive women and top recruits? Much of that will depend on if the NCAA can prove two things: 1. that the Tennessee hostesses traveled to the high school game (or games) under the direction of the coaching staff and 2. that the hostesses are considered representatives of the university and that such contact would be improper.
Let's dive in and ask some other interesting questions and observations about this investigation.
1. Every major college football program has a hostess program.
They are always attractive, friendly, and "welcoming." In his book, Meat Market, about Ole Miss' recruiting machine under Ed Orgeron, Bruce Feldman describes the Ole Miss contingent as jaw-droppingly beautiful.
Believe it or not, 17- and-18-year-old old football players like to be around attractive girls when they visit campuses.
I know, shocking.
That's why virtually every school has a similar program.
And Tennessee's hostesses are, wait for it, hourly employees of the UT admissions office. They aren't under the umbrella of the Tennessee athletic department at all. That's a significant fact worth remembering. So is the fact that some recruits get stuck with the men -- Orange Pride isn't all female.
2. The New York Times describes UT's hostesses as "folk heroes on message boards."
In their opening paragraph no less.
"A significant part of the investigation is focused on the use of recruiting hostesses who have become folk heroes on Tennessee Internet message boards for their ability to help lure top recruits."Given that I wrote a book about Tennessee athletics and the fan experience, I feel confident in noting what topics occur on UT message boards. And hostess-related threads -- a thread is a topic on a board -- comprise far less than one in every 10,000 posts on these sites.
If this amount of posting makes the UT hostesses, "folk heroes," then I'm Davy Crockett and General Andrew Jackson incarnate.
Let's just call that opening paragraph what it is, a colossal exaggeration that helps make a story sexier.
3. What do I mean by a written record that might illustrate a directive to attend this game?
If a coach or representative of the university, for instance, e-mailed or texted a hostess and specifically instructed them to go on a trip, that would be a written record. Or if, perhaps, the university picked up the tab for gas or lodging for a trip of this nature. Both of these would offer an element that the NCAA desperately needs, tangible proof that the Tennessee staff was involved in orchestrating these trips.
Absent that, it's virtually impossible to prove a major violation. And even it that occurred, it's probably still not a major violation, as I'll discuss below.
4. The article does not say whether or not the hostesses attended the Byrnes high school game before or after the players went public with their commitment, but given that the hostesses probably didn't meet the players until they visited campus, it would appear likely that the September visit happened after the commitment.
Why is this significant?
Because if the players have already publicly committed to the university before the trip occurred, it's hard to argue that the players at Byrnes High School were making their decision based on any hostess trip or any hostess sign at a game.
That's a pretty compelling point that should have been examined in the New York Times article. Not just whether the trip occurred, but whether it had any actual influence.
Here, it probably didn't have any impact.
And how about using "nearly 200 miles" as the distance instead of writing, "three hours in a car." Is it really that surprising that a college student would take a road trip of three hours? Especially in the South, for a football game? Is it even that uncommon for someone to drive three hours to watch a sporting event? Nearly 200 miles makes the trip sound much further, especially to east coast readers.
But if you're going to use "nearly 200 miles" as the number, wouldn't it make sense to actually give the correct distance if you're the paper of record. The trip to that high school is actually 178 miles from downtown Knoxville. At least according to a simple search on Google maps.
So why not just write the actual distance? It's less words, more precise.
But less exotic.
Putting that monumental 178-mile trip into state of Tennessee context, from Knoxville to Byrnes High School is fewer miles than a trip from Knoxville to Nashville.
Does anyone think that's much of a trip now?
5. Similarly, "an investigation spanning three states" and "wide-ranging investigation" is the kind of charged language used in the article that the facts don't justify.
First of all, Tennessee has received no notice of investigation from the NCAA. So it's not actually an investigation; right now it hasn't progressed to the point where the NCAA feels the need to notify the school. That's a point of semantics, but it's also significant because it illustrates how far along we are in the process now.
Furthermore, isn't it kind of significant that the "investigation" spans three states because that's where the players are from? Or does the "investigation" literally span the entire state involving governors, state legislatures and water rights?
Also, the opening sentence says the story is "wide-ranging" yet the story focuses on hostesses traveling to high school football games. Is that really that wide-ranging of a investigation? Wouldn't that, in fact, be a really narrow investigation?
That's leaving aside the fact that, you know, it's not actually an investigation because the NCAA gives notice to the university if they are conducting an investigation and they haven't notified Tennessee of anything.
Read this opening sentence: "The N.C.A.A. is conducting a wide-ranging investigation into the University of Tennessee's football recruiting practices, according to interviews with several prospects, their family members and high school administrators."
Now read this one: "The NCAA is conducting a review to determine whether Tennessee Volunteer hostesses attended the high school football games of top prospects, and if they did, whether coaches had any knowledge of these trips."
Which is more salacious of a lead?
Which is more accurate?
I like the New York Times. I'm probably their only subscriber 30 or under in the entire city of Nashville who has been a subscriber for five or more years, but, come on, these facts are all played up to make this story look much more significant than it actually is.
6. Where did the New York Times initial tip come from?
The NCAA does not comment on ongoing investigations. Nor does Tennessee. In fact, Tennessee knew nothing of this review, until they were contacted last night by the newspaper.
That makes it seem likely that this story was the result of a tip from a rival program. Why would a rival program tip off Lane Kiffin and Tennessee?
Because we're in the midst of a huge recruiting period and Tennessee is a hot program, with Rivals' overall No. 5 ranking in the country.
All's fair in love, football, and recruiting.
In stories such as these, I always think one of the most interesting angles that doesn't get reported is how the reporter ends up with the story. Because, to me, that tells as much as the story itself. If we want to play the inference game, the same writers quoted Steve Spurrier yesterday talking about the Heisman Trophy. Would it be a surprise if Spurrier was aware of what went on in South Carolina high school games?
Especially when he's competing for recruits with Kiffin and has already had several public dust-ups with Kiffin over recruiting?
How about Urban Meyer or Nick Saban, other recent profile pieces in the NYT?
To me, that's a more interesting story than the one the New York Times wrote. That is, who stands to gain from this story being written?
7. It's important to note that Lane Kiffin didn't install the hostess program.
Nor does he have a say in the selection of hostesses each year. The Vol hostesses -- there are around 50 -- go through an interview process and are selected independently from the football program. In fact, as I stated earlier, they are hourly employees of the UT admissions office, the same place that gives other students tours of campus.
What's more, at least half of these girls were hostesses under the prior Phil Fulmer regime. So any suggestion that Kiffin has somehow remade the group is fundamentally inaccurate.
The Vol hostesses existed long before Lane Kiffin arrived and will exist long after he leaves.
8. Does this investigation have anything to do with Lane Kiffin's six secondary violations in the field of recruiting?
It's also no doubt related to Lane Kiffin's public boasting that his recruiting is going to be topnotch. Kiffin hasn't made many friends during his time at Tennessee, but he has brought in top players who respect his bravura.
Evidently the NCAA doesn't respect this boasting.
In fact, one could even wonder if the NCAA helped leak this story because they can't prove anything untoward happened in this case, but they want to give Kiffin a public rapping on the knuckles.
Put another way, is this story news if Phil Fulmer is still coach?
9. Do Vol hostesses even know the specific NCAA rules?
No Vol hostess has ever seen an NCAA rulebook, and they don't receive specific training in NCAA rules. Now, they do receive NCAA training, but it's of a very basic level. The vast, vast majority of their two-day training concerns how to treat family members and what the game day protocol is for recruiting visits; all of those things that they regularly deal with on a day-to-day basis.
None of it deals with obscure NCAA bylaws.
Keep in mind that these girls are just students on campus. They have as much knowledge as your average student would of the NCAA rules, potentially less.
10. Individual Vol hostesses are being named all over the Internet even if they did nothing wrong.
Which is a reflection of the Internet age, but is also incredibly tough for them. Imagine if you'd taken an hourly job on campus and then the top 10 results for your name on Google involved NCAA violations and words like "scandal."
Wouldn't you be incredibly worried about your future career prospects?
Then take that to another level and say you weren't able to tell your story publicly because you enjoyed being a hostess and knew if you spoke publicly you'd lose that position forever.
Wouldn't that be pretty rough to take for something you did as an hourly employee?
11. Again, let's reiterate, the bottom line here: An NCAA investigation is focusing on what students who happen to be admissions office hourly employee students did or didn't do.
That's an incredibly broad scope that raises all sorts of interesting questions.
Can hostesses on any campus have a private life if they host recruits? Are their text messages subject to review, their Facebook wall postings, their phone records? Can they take a trip on their own without the NCAA asking where they went or who they saw?
Do these girls even have the right, according to the NCAA rules, to choose who they enter into relationships with?
Keep in mind that these recruiting visits only last a weekend. So based on, what, 36 hours, at most, of interaction with recruits, these girls give away all their privacy rights on every campus?
Shouldn't the NCAA poring over the records of admissions hourly office employees who spend a limited amount of time with other potential students be a bit ominous to all of us?
Where do we draw the line?
12. Finally, even if Tennessee's coaching staff was involved in encouraging these girls to go to games, is it a significant violation?
Probably not. Because even if they had tangible proof that UT had encouraged these girls to take that trip, we'd still have to determine whether or not these hostesses are full-fledged university representatives and how significant that encouragement was.
Which, by the way, I doubt will ever be proven.
And I think that's why the story is out there now. Because the negative publicity associated with this story in a time of recruiting is more valuable than any penalty the NCAA could actually levy.
In fact, per the University of Tennessee, they haven't even received a word from the NCAA of any inquiry or investigation, something they always receive when these inquiries or investigations take place. What we have right now is the New York Times aflutter with glee over their huge investigative piece that boils down to a UT undergrad carrying a sign to a high school football game that says, "Come to Tennessee."
That's it, that's this story.
The New York Times: All the news that's fit to print about college girls and their signs at high school football games.
Lane Kiffin's reaped a whirlwind of positive value from his high recruiting profile, now the NCAA is enacting their revenge.
Even if that revenge, and the story behind it, isn't very legitimate.
Update: Tennessee has now issued a statement on what they are terming a "review" by the NCAA of allegations relating to members of their Orange Pride group.
Clay Travis is the author of three books. His latest, "On Rocky Top: A Front Row Seat to The End of an Era" chronicles the 2008 Tennessee football season and is on sale now.