Many millions are generated each year off of the talents of college athletes, and it’s fitting that players should share in the revenues.
Georgia is among a dozen states that have passed “Name Image Likeness” (NIL) laws or executive orders that allow players to use their image to make money. It’s a move toward fairness for athletes. It’s always seemed wrong for so much money to be made on the backs of athletes who don’t get a cut and often don’t make it to the pros. Their coaches have been able to make money off sponsorships. Shouldn’t players, too?
But wow, this isn’t just a can of worms. It’s a bathtub of Nightcrawlers, Red Wigglers and Waxworms. The end of amateurism is here. And what does this mean for college athletics? It’s hard to say, but the impact could be profound.
I can’t help but think that recruiting just got significantly more intense and complicated. Universities can’t directly pay players, but players are now going to expect to get paid. And they will want to go where they have the most opportunity for money.
Before this, everyone was on a level playing field — at least according to the rules. There were those who got in trouble for signing autographs for money, or accepting money in some other way. But the rule was clear: You’re an amateur; don’t take money.
Now, the level playing field has been bulldozed and a big pile of dirt sits to the side. Where will the most money get stacked, and what colleges will get to stand at the top of the hill in the new athletic financial market?
The NCAA will attempt to bring uniformity to what’s allowed. But if you open the door to money, how can you control an actual financial market, especially one that isn’t rooted in negotiated performance contracts with players, like the pros, but in a hodgepodge of sponsorship deals that will be tied as much to popularity as performance? The NCAA won’t be able to control this in any meaningful way.
Meanwhile, there have always been winners and losers in the college athletic resource game. But throw in legalized third-party payments to players, and the distance between winners and losers will be even greater.
I wonder: How involved can universities be in securing sponsorship deals for their players? Even if limitations are set on that involvement, how can that be enforced? Legal or not, recruiters — or those close to the recruiting process — are going to be working hand in hand with this or that business, trying to secure a lucrative sponsorship deal for the stud cornerback who is also considering Alabama or Ohio State. Come here and these three retailers will promise you X amount. Oh yeah, well Ohio State said they got six businesses signed up to give me twice that. So you better find more businesses to sponsor me or I’m off to Ohio State.
And what role will big-money donors have in this? I suppose a fair market value might need to be determined for a signing. Otherwise, what stops a donor from funneling $2 million to an athlete through a third-party sponsor who hires him to sign autographs at a wings joint on a Sunday afternoon?
And perhaps most of all, what will this do to locker room psychology? Think of all the jealousies that have been in place in sports since sports have been played. You got more playing time than me. You aren’t even as good as me, but at least I got two sponsorships. You don’t have any.
Right now, I’m sure college athletes are really happy about the money. And many will remain so, for sure. But college athletics just took a seriously sharp turn toward individualism and away from team focus. That’s the nature of money. Who has it; who doesn’t? Put that into the equation in the locker room and the college game will be really different. Again, the sponsorships, unlike negotiated salaries, will be more rooted in name recognition than in performance. So, players will be even more focused now on branding themselves. Some may handle this splendidly, but I expect a number of players will lose focus on what they need to do for the team, working instead on getting a money-making deal. And I’m sure that will have a major impact on the performance of some in the classroom.
Like I said, it has seemed wrong for so much money to be made off amateur athletics without the players getting a dime for their work. But deciding they can get their payday is not a simple matter. I think of the rap song: “Mo Money, Mo Problems.” Well that may or may not be true for players. But it’s definitely true for the NCAA and anyone trying to keep the field level for college athletics.
Yes, NIL rights a long-standing wrong, but what new wrongs will it bring? I’m pretty sure it won’t be nil.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.