The attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia filed suit on Wednesday against the N.C.A.A., saying the body that regulates college athletics has no right to block the increasingly common practice of wealthy boosters paying to attract top recruits.

The suit was filed a day after the disclosure that the N.C.A.A. was investigating the University of Tennessee’s football program for recruiting violations involving a donor group that arranges to pay athletes. It could set up a broad legal battle over the very nature of college athletics, which is in the middle of a rapid transition from a tightly policed amateur system into an unfettered kind of professional marketplace.

The driving force behind that change has been donor collectives, which are groups of alumni and other boosters who donate money that is used to compensate top athletes, sometimes in amounts approaching professional levels. They do so by exploiting the N.C.A.A.’s new “name-image-likeness” rules, or N.I.L., which were intended to let athletes be paid for endorsements but in practice allow almost anyone to pay them, and for almost any reason.

In effect, the collectives pay salaries disguised as endorsements, and they now play a central role in the process of wooing players in football, basketball and other sports.

The lawsuit seeks to remove one of the few N.C.A.A. rules that limit these collectives — and one of the last vestiges of the amateur model.

That rule is that collectives cannot recruit high schoolers or transfer students to play at their chosen school by offering them money.


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