It's an NIL world: As hard as it is to grasp players getting big money, there is no choice
Charles Darwin knew nothing about football, but college sports fans would be wise to take his advice right about now.
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one most adaptable to change.
The change we’re talking about is NIL. A year ago, people could barely spell it. It’s fast becoming the lifeblood of college sports.
If you want a strong sports program, you have to embrace it. If you want to keep loving college sports, you need to accept NIL (or name, image, likeness).
No more secret handshakes needed
For anyone born before 2010, that’s the hard part.
We were raised when prized recruits had to get paid off the old-fashioned way — in $100 handshakes. Now we’ve been cast into a surreal universe where anything goes.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the $8 million NIL deal an unnamed source gave an unnamed high school junior to eventually play quarterback (think Tennessee). That's just the tip of the payola iceberg.
Oscar Tshiebwe, the National Player of the Year in basketball, is reportedly getting $2 million to stay at Kentucky another year. Miami just lured point guard Nijel Pack away from Kansas State for an $800,000 NIL deal from LifeWallet. They threw in a car.
Anthony Richardson has been tooling around Gainesville in a new set of wheels since last fall. If Kerwin Bell had been spotted driving a fancy new Charger, a dozen NCAA investigators would have descended on Gainesville Dodge demanding to dust the invoice for Galen Hall’s fingerprints. All Richardson has to worry about is cops pulling him over for speeding.
When it comes to NIL, there are no speed or spending limits.
The U.S. Supreme Court unleashed this revolution last summer when it struck down the NCAA’s ability to restrict educational benefits for athletes. The NIL market could reach $500 million this year. That will buy a lot of Chargers.
The money flows mostly through fan-funded “collectives,” which operate independently from schools to be compliant. Florida fans are doing their part.
The Gator Collective had raised about $500,000 through mostly small donations. It was joined last week by the Gator Guard. The new collective targets deep-pocketed boosters. It raised $5 million in about 48 hours.
That’s great. Sort of.
If people are willing to pay a 5-star prospect $500,000 a year, that’s their right. And who are we to tell the kid not to take it?
Alabama's Nick Saban wants parameters set
I’ll tell you who one of us is – Nick Saban.
“It’s fine for players to get money,” he told the Associated Press. “But there also has to be some responsibility on both ends.”
He’s among many voices calling for regulations to control the bidding wars. They use terms like “guard rails” and “salary cap,” but are vague on details.
Saban at least has a couple of concrete thoughts. He’d like to see all players get the same NIL benefits and commit to schools for the right reasons — academics, coaching, weight room, fight song, etc.
“If we’re going to do this, then everybody is going to benefit equally,” Saban said. “I’m not going to create a caste system on our team.”
That sounds good in theory. But Saban needs to brush up on economist Adam Smith and antitrust regulations before floating ideas.
NIL expert: 'It's all hot air'
“It makes for good sound bites,” said Darren Heitner, a Gainesville sports attorney and NIL expert. “But it’s all hot air.”
Schools don’t control NIL collectives, and NIL compensation is based on market appeal. Bryce Young is always going to get more deals than Alabama’s right tackle.
That’s the free market at work. The only way to have an NFL-like salary cap is through collective bargaining. That would require players to unionize and become employees of the university.
That could bring all sorts of unintended consequences, like colleges losing nonprofit status or a receiver getting fired for dropping a touchdown pass. But the way the college sports universe is evolving, nothing is sacred.
Schools could drop all academic pretense and simply hire teams to entertain the masses on Saturdays. Power 5 conferences could break away from the NCAA and form their own league with their own NIL rules.
That might control salaries, but it wouldn’t control compensation. Like the NFL, players would still have the right to earn whatever they could through endorsements.
“There would not be a cap in terms of what they are allowed to make,” Heitner said.
There will be market corrections, but the overall money supply isn’t going to shrink. That leaves traditionalists with two Darwinian choices.
Forget about college sports and take up stamp collecting.
Accept that revolution is here, and there’s no turning back. Even if you don’t get a new Charger, you might as well enjoy the ride.
— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley