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Who remembers the good old days when coaches would turn their collective heads the other way as star college athletes would get paid under the table for their talent by unscrupulous boosters who …
Who remembers the good old days when coaches would turn their collective heads the other way as star college athletes would get paid under the table for their talent by unscrupulous boosters who would arrange for them to get a sweet deal on a hot car, a cushy job that paid well without requiring any work, or just some extra cold hard cash?
And please, if you honestly believe there was no such thing or that such graft was limited to only a few, pull your head out of … the sand. A 1989 survey of NFL players found that a third of them admitted to receiving illegal payments in college. Seven out of ten players from Southeastern Conference schools – Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, and Tennessee – said they received illegal payments.
It was a time-tested game designed to circumvent the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s strict rules about amateurism. For well over a century, the NCAA has set caps on institutional scholarships and imposed countless rules on third party payments to ensure that college athletes are perceived as amateurs. A full or partial education in exchange for their talents was all that was permitted.
But in 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court took a good deal of the subterfuge out of the game by declaring that a college player can make money on his or her own name, likeness and image. Unpaid amateur athletes were essential to the nature of their product, the NCAA argued, but in a unanimous 9-0 decision Justice Brett Kavanaugh called the NCAA out for what it was, an antitrust collective colluding to keep labor rates low while earning billions of dollars in exchange.
“Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate,” Kavanaugh wrote. “The NCAA is not above the law.”
And with that, a common term for a score of zero, nil, morphed into NIL – Name, Image, and Likeness– a way for the game’s elite and not so elite to cash in on their abilities, and a legitimized way for universities and colleges to pay for the best to play for their schools.
The top NIL earners have shredded the archaic notion of amateurism by selling their names, images, and likenesses to the highest bidders in the business world, earning money by using their products in advertising and social media posts. And some are hauling in over four times more than the base rookie National Football League salary of $705,000.
In 2020, Alabama quarterback Mac Jones played for a full-ride scholarship, room and board. This year’s Alabama quarterback, Bryce Young, has NIL deals worth $3.2 million dollars. You read that right - $3.2 million. Every sponsored social media post Bryce Young makes brings in $26,300, earning in seconds what an average retail cashier earns in a year.
And it’s not just football players who are working the NIL market for big dollars. Louisiana State University gymnast Olivia Dunne will pull in over $2 million this year for promoting American Eagle Outfitters jeans and Vuori active wear to her eight-million-plus social media followers.
Few deals are anywhere near as lucrative as Young’s, but it’s a stark illustration of what NIL’s are doing to college recruiting. Instead of top recruits asking about what kind of education or how much TV time they will get, the question is now “How MUCH will I get?”
It’s important to understand that these kids aren’t getting paid to play their sports by their universities and colleges. That would be illegal under NCAA rules. But institutions have found a way use NILs to their advantage by promoting the establishment of collectives. Rather than make deals with individual athletes, a collective commits an overall pool designated for NILs for their university’s teams. They can’t designate it for Player X, it has to be for the school. Then a school can tell athletes they have so many millions of dollars in NILs available, and they’ll get their fair share of those. Ohio State football coach Ryan Day told donors this past summer his football team would need $13 million in NILs to be competitive for top talent. With NILs, the talent-rich programs will get richer, and the talent-poor ones will get smaller.
Any college athlete at any level is free to try to swing NIL deals of their own. A pole vaulter at an NAIA or NCAA Division III school probably won’t make much, but might make a little spending cash from a local business if they’re a popular player in the community. And for those thousands of collegiate athletes who aren’t star-quality players, there are well over a dozen online services they can go to that will help them try to line up some kind of NIL. Some are free, some take a percentage of the athlete’s deal as compensation.
Even high school athletes can try to get NILs. The Minnesota State High School League adopted relevant guidelines this summer. It’s not too likely we’ll see any of our local kids get NIL contracts, but for high-profile athletes in the Twin Cities area, a little something could be coming their way.
Of course, there’s not space here to devote to the all of the other ways big money has taken over college sports, from $10-million coaching contracts for football’s Nick Saban and basketball’s Bill Self to the $7 billion media rights agreement the Big 10 Conference nailed down recently, just to name a few.
But a fine example of how academics takes a back seat to athletics today in NCAA Division I schools is that aforementioned media deal. The Big 10 Conference, which used to have ten members, now has 14 because of how the conference can profit financially from the extra teams. But the Big 14 just doesn’t work for the sports marketing brand. So, for you “new math” fans, 14=10. For now. In 2024, it will be 16=10. First-grade teachers might as well surrender now.
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