NIL – A Breakthrough Or Breaking the Game?

In the not so distant past, college athletes receiving compensation for their name, image and likeness (NIL) was prohibited. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) frequently desired to bust coaches, players and programs making it seem like their sole operating purpose was punishment. Some of those punishments have been minor, but some have been extremely severe.

One severe penalty was what Ohio State had to do endure prior to the 2011 football season. Five players, most notably Terrell Pryor and DeVier Posey, were engaged in the activity of getting free tattoos and sometimes money from selling their own memorabilia. This incident came with nearly year long suspensions for the players, as well as head coach Jim Tressell stepping down.

We can’t discuss major punishment without talking about SMU’s “death penalty,” either. In what the NCAA believes was their harshest penalty of all time and one that will never be put in motion again was the total shutdown of SMU’s football program. This all stemmed from a pay then play type agreement that was basically paying high schoolers to come play for the Mustangs. This action was incredibly illegal back in the 1970s and 80s when it happened, but in reality, todays NIL is not much different.

The Reality

It’s a good thing for student athletes who are the main marketing pieces for their schools to get their cut of the pie. For instance, in 2020 Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence was valued at over one million dollars. This is all calculated using his interactions on social media and influence on sales that return to the athletic department, like tickets and apparel.

Situations like this where you see fans buying jerseys and customizing them to be a certain player makes it seem logical to allow players to market themselves. Some non-powerhouse schools have plans that are fantastic for advertisement, like Temple. The chances the fans have of getting a player they like wearing the #1 jersey was high because all single digits had to be earned by the players. That type of self marketing is easy and doesn’t require much stress.

The Problem

The issue with NIL is it is highly sophisticated and runs much deeper than names on the back of jerseys. With the NCAA opening up the can of worms without any sort of regulation, they made the mess bigger than they could have even imagined. To be honest, some teams are doing the very same thing that SMU did and there’s nothing currently the NCAA can do to stop it.

One example of the broken NIL system has to do with USC’s pursuit of players this offseason. After luring head coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma, it was only a matter of time before the program needed to snag Riley’s preferred signal caller. Caleb Williams was pulled in by USC with a real estate fund backed NIL deal worth a few million to get him to Los Angeles. They weren’t done, as Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison was poached in the transfer portal on what was reported as a three million dollar NIL deal.

College football has now turned into free agency with the highest bidder, and some programs have a ton of boosters that can add to these bids. A head coach stand-off took front and center to this belief as Alabama’s Nick Saban called out Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher for paying players to come to College Station. How could you not blame him, though? It definitely seems fishy as A&M pulled in it’s best recruiting class ever just after NIL opened up, especially with all the booster money they have.

The biggest problem in all of this mess is how they’re pressuring young teens to take or decline deals without any help from an experienced person in the matter, such as an agent. Not every kid, let alone every guardian, is cut out to handle those types of monumental decisions. Once the NCAA decides to put the clamps on the transfer portal, it’s going to make the decision even tougher.

Draw The Line

Where I draw the line versus where everyone else draws the line is going to be different, but there has to be one. My concept is very simple because it takes the money out of the universities completely, without totally upending the NIL program.

My belief is that absolutely zero dollars should be allowed to be given to a player from a NIL deal before signing. Not even an agreement should be allowed to take place prior to commitment. This includes players in the transfer portal as well as high school athletes. Once on campus, teams should be able to work with athletes to pursue NIL deals.

Back to Ohio State though, because they seemed to have learned their past lessons. Head coach Ryan Day was straight to the point in discussing what monetary compensation would be required for the future, all the while their athletic department developed their own NIL collective. They are being smart by standing front and center reporting all their NIL deals, while other schools that may be receiving more money, are being furtive with theirs. This could be something to keep an eye on down the road for possible fraud on unreported deals.

Another belief I have is that any sort of outside company who wants to pay a player, regardless of school affiliation, should be fine. For example if Gatorade or maybe Subway wanted to move in and sign an NIL deal with a player, then that should be allowed. Those companies have no pull on a single university, so deals of those varieties should be just fine.

One Last Thought

There’s not really a right or wrong way forward because this process has stalled. Any advancement towards regulations, maybe a cap on the money earned, would certainly be welcomed. Let’s just hope that common ground is met sooner than later or there could be a massive divide between those teams competing in the Power Five conferences and those that aren’t.

To continue the effort of leaning forward, rescinding worthless sanctions/vacated wins is a must. Returning Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy to him comes to mind, since any benefits he received didn’t have any influence on the outcome of him receiving the award. This mindset should be taken into account for all other penalties that didn’t have any leverage on game outcomes.

Once the NCAA starts thinking logically then better days for college athletics will definitely be ahead. Until then, the recruiting process will continue to favor dollar bills over potential fits and education. The most crucial point of all this is to remember the whole goal was to compensate athletes for what they are worth, not bid for their services. 

Derek Worley

Sports Analyst

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