Former Georgia teammates have front-row views of NIL chaos

On Sept. 28, 2013, University of Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray looks to hand off to tailback Keith Marshall during their game at Sanford Stadium. Georgia defeated LSU 44-41. (AJC file photo by Jason Getz)

Credit: jgetz@ajc.com

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On Sept. 28, 2013, University of Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray looks to hand off to tailback Keith Marshall during their game at Sanford Stadium. Georgia defeated LSU 44-41. (AJC file photo by Jason Getz)

Credit: jgetz@ajc.com

Keith Marshall and Aaron Murray, who were Georgia Bulldogs teammates a decade ago, now are co-CEOs of a company trying to carve out a niche in the name, image and likeness space.

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They have front-row views of the NIL chaos transforming college athletics – chaos that fueled last week’s war of words between football coaches Nick Saban of Alabama and Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M.

“I do think that right now it’s the Wild Wild West,” said Marshall, who this month completed an MBA degree at Emory University, “but I’m very thankful that athletes now get to take home some of the value that they create.

“From coaches to big TV houses, media brands, apparel companies and universities, everybody has kind of got their hands in the pie, making a lot of money off of this game that we all love. Now that the athletes get to participate, I’m very excited.”

Marshall, Murray and two other former Georgia football players last year launched The Players’ Lounge, a platform that allows current college athletes to earn NIL income for engaging with fans. The company announced Monday the appointment of Marshall and Murray to the co-CEO roles as it prepares to expand.

Murray, who set SEC records for passing yards and touchdown passes as Georgia’s starting quarterback from 2010-13, and Marshall, whose career as a UGA running back from 2012-15 was interrupted and altered by a serious knee injury, spoke jointly via Zoom with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the NIL storm engulfing college sports:

AJC: Are you surprised by how rapidly the NIL landscape has evolved since it arrived for college athletes last summer?

Murray: I think the NIL rule along with the ability to play right away once you transfer was just too much all at once. I think that has snowballed into some issues we are seeing across the country where kids are having a great year at maybe a smaller school and then getting $3 million to go play somewhere else, leaving teammates behind. But you can’t blame them. I’m all in favor of NIL, but I’m in favor of it being done correctly. A lot of these collectives (groups of boosters), in my mind, are essentially just saying ‘give us money and we’ll funnel it to players and they don’t really have to do anything.’ That was not my vision of NIL.

Marshall: I’m not overly surprised that it’s become so all-over-the-place. I think over time, anything new is going to rein itself in. I think structure will be put in place as different parties in this ecosystem figure out how to navigate it.

AJC: What do you make of the feud between Saban (who accused Texas A&M of buying recruits) and Fisher (who denied the charge and called Saban a narcissist)?

Marshall: My initial reaction was Texas A&M didn’t necessarily do anything illegal. I know (Saban) probably doesn’t like it because he’s been on the top of the mountain so long doing things a certain way, but that day has passed. My take on it is you’ve got to compete differently now.

Murray: Last week obviously was very entertaining with Saban and Jimbo. ... I think it could have been handled better by both of them. This is a new world – especially for some of these coaches, man. They’re not used to kids making more money than some of their position coaches. You’re having to cater to these kids in a very different way.

AJC: What, if anything, do you think should be changed or regulated regarding NIL in college sports?

Murray: I think it’s just too late at this point. If I could go back and change one thing, it would be the transfer portal. I would rather it be that if your coach leaves or gets fired, then yes, you can transfer somewhere else and play immediately. But if you just want to pick up and leave because you think you can go make money somewhere else, then you should have to sit out a year. Maybe I’m old-school in that sense. ... NIL is sexy and cool and fun right now, but are all these big-time donors going to want to keep writing six- or seven-figure checks, especially if some of these players flop? I don’t know if it’s sustainable long term.

Marshall: I’m probably a little bit different. If we’re going to say this is a free market, these kids can go and get paid whatever their market value is. There’s nobody on the outside that can set what that is. … But I think there’s a lot of athletes probably signing deals that are not putting themselves in the best position long term because they don’t understand the depths of the contracts they’re signing.

AJC: How did your own college football experience influence your stance on what’s happening now?

Marshall: For me and what I dealt with – the success early on, then the injury and battling to get back in position where I was fortunate enough to be drafted – I definitely feel like if I would have been able to get compensated earlier, I could have helped provide my family with a foundation that could sustain me longer. But think about Murray: He was the SEC all-time leading quarterback, one of the biggest faces of college football, and probably would have made millions of dollars over the course of three or four years. And we didn’t get to participate in any of that.

AJC: What’s next for The Players’ Lounge (which launched late last season by selling Georgia fans $199 non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, that serve as passes to a fan community offering access to players through in-person events and online)?

Murray: It was a good start at Georgia, but now it’s to replicate that at our next schools. We plan on launching at LSU next month and then Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and Clemson in July.

Marshall: We started off as kind of a side project, and now we’re transitioning to being a full-time company.