In a development that presumably surprised virtually no one involved with college athletics, the NCAA rule change allowing athletes to be compensated for their name, image and likeness has morphed into a vehicle for boosters to deliver gobs of money into the hands of athletes and to entice recruits to sign with their school.
“It is playing a role in recruiting,” new Miami football coach Mario Cristobal said. “I mean, we all know that.”
As coaches and administrators from ACC schools met this week at the Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island, Fla., for their annual spring meetings, the response wasn’t panic, handwringing or frustration with yet another well-meaning piece of NCAA legislation having gone haywire. It was something more like resigned acceptance.
“There’s not going to be much more guardrails on the NIL,” Tech basketball coach Josh Pastner said. “This is kind of here to stay. Either you’re going to adapt to it or deal with it.”
A major challenge for the NCAA is that putting some sort of financial limit on NIL agreements, or challenging the worthiness or legality of an NIL deal, may be inviting a lawsuit. One could reasonably conclude that $800,000 and a new car might seem a little generous for a two-year endorsement deal with a healthcare app for a relatively anonymous college basketball player. But that’s what Miami booster John Ruiz gave to Nijel Pack in April to tout LifeWallet upon his transfer to Miami from Kansas State.
That was followed by the NIL agent for Hurricanes guard Isaiah Wong threatening for his client to go in the transfer portal if he didn’t receive more NIL money. Ruiz, who already had an NIL deal with Wong, offered to help him secure another endorsement, and Wong stayed.
The response of Notre Dame basketball coach Mike Brey: “I said, ‘Man, we’re in trouble; this thing is off the rails.’ And then the negotiation of Wong. I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I don’t know how we reel those back.”
“We’re definitely hearing some horror stories out there, and, quite frankly, everyone has a different story to tell,” Georgia Tech athletic director Todd Stansbury said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution before the league meetings.
Speaking at the ACC meetings, a few weeks following the Pack/Wong episode, Brey didn’t have any suggestions for reeling, just for accepting.
“I’ve got a lot of young (assistant) coaches,” Brey said. “When we were on the road in April, I said, ‘We’ve got to stop complaining. This is the world we’re in. Last time I checked, we make pretty good money. Everyone should just shut up and adjust.’”
Brey spoke a day after the NCAA had issued guidance on NIL, specifically barring collectives (groups generally funded by boosters to create NIL deals with a school’s athletes) or boosters from contacting recruits or potential transfers and offering them NIL deals. The statement from the NIL was interpreted as providing clarity to NCAA enforcement staff to begin investigating potential wrongdoing. Brey, among others, was skeptical, saying he had no confidence in the NCAA to deter such activity.
“They’d better have one case in the next month to make a point, but I’ll bet they can’t do that,” he said. “Somebody’s got to get caught. Let’s see if they can do it. They’re talking a big game, but they always have talked a big game about that. Again, (fear of potential) litigation. I don’t know where they’re going with it.”
Jason Belzer, who operates an NIL-focused business that runs about 12 collectives, said that it should be relatively easy for the NCAA to find rule breakers, starting with Ruiz.
“If he’s not suspect No. 1, I don’t know who is,” he said. “But they’re not going to go after Ruiz himself because they’re not going to go after a billionaire lawyer who will take them all the way to the Supreme Court and probably win.”
A potential alternative is for the NCAA to go after the schools supported by the boosters. That has its own pitfalls.
“Is a school going to take a postseason ban (as an NCAA sanction)?” Belzer asked. “They’re going to ague that it’s not their fault – how do they control it? Or what if the state law says this was permissible at the time?”
There also was an expectation, though, that this chaotic market would ultimately settle.
“Anytime you have a seismic change and there’s immediately this flurry of activity and people going off and doing different kinds of activities because they think it’s a good idea, some of those ideas may not be that productive, even for the people that are doing those activities,” Wake Forest athletic director John Currie said. “A lot of that stuff settles out over time.”
Belzer doesn’t see the NIL market remaining so flush with booster money in the recruiting realm. It has exploded, he said, because a vacuum is being filled by people with money and different levels of knowledge and experience and ideas on how to make NIL work for their school.
“What I think is that eventually, we will not only see hopefully collectives at every school, but it’s going to take some time for them to figure out how to do it the right way,” he said.
The market likely also will calm down when recruits or transfers who’ve received big NIL deals don’t pan out as expected. In that case boosters may be less willing to part with tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars on the next five-star quarterback.
“People that have money have money for a reason,” Belzer said. “Because they’re good at figuring out where to put it.”
Further, Currie suggested that in conversations between prospects and coaches or donors, perhaps not all is as it may seem. That could be prospects inflating the value of money available at other schools, donors making misleading statements about what is available should a prospect sign or reports what an NIL actually is worth.
“Clearly there may be some complete truth to some things and there’s complete exaggeration in other things,” he said.
And, Brey and other coaches indicated that not every recruit is after the biggest NIL payout. Playing time, development, the chance to win and the value of a degree, as well as NIL opportunities, still hold some sway.
While Tech is supported by at least one collective set to launch soon (Swarm the ATL) and donors to football have set up NIL deals for the team’s position groups through companies that they own or work for, Stansbury doesn’t appear to have interest in the world of boosters making John Ruiz-type deals. Stansbury hardly is discouraging donors from contributing to a collective, but he likewise has been a staunch proponent of the value of a Tech degree, the professional and life skills that can be developed through the athletic department’s Total Person Program and the opportunities available through Tech’s alumni network.
“We’ve got to stick to the Georgia Tech way, which is a path that sets them up for the rest of their lives,” he said. “And so our coaches are in that battle every day, but the good news is we’ve got a structure set up to help our student-athletes take advantage of their opportunities, and will continue to put them in that position.”
The NIL chaos that has rocked college athletics in the past several months is only part of a larger shift in the industry. On a much larger scale, the viability of the entire college athletics model is under question, as figures as high-ranking as ACC commissioner Jim Phillips have raised the possibility of FBS football breaking away from the auspices of the NCAA.
Whenever the NIL market calms down, it may be only a respite in a much more encompassing storm.