December 11, 2023

It’s been two years since college athletes have been allowed to profit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL), and the chaotic “wild West” of college sports was the promised result has exceeded expectations to the point where the U.S. Senate has just wrapped up another hearing on whether, and how, to bring clarity to the contentious issue.

On Tuesday numerous big hitters in college sports administration, including NCAA president Charlie Baker, Big Ten Commissioner Tony Petitti, and Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee and asked for help.

It’s the 10th time this committee has taken up this issue, and — no surprise here — help was not forthcoming. Left unresolved were questions of unionization, particularly whether athletes could be considered employees of a university; on whether and how much schools should be responsible for the health of athletes after they finish their playing careers; and on whether Title IX is being violated, as most of the big money flows to male athletes — to name three issues discussed.

But the big issue taken up at this session was how to — indeed, whether to — bring some semblance of order to the world of collectives, entities that operate independently of schools but collect donor dollars and distribute them to a school’s athletes. Collectives at the big football powers throw millions at athletes, and potential athletes, and have been largely unregulated since the arrival of NIL in 2021. These collectives are by law prohibited from being used in recruitment, but any kid who can read numbers can see which schools have wealthy collectives and which do not and deduce where he can make the most money. This gives schools with rich collectives a hefty advantage in recruiting blue-chip athletes.

How Wild Is It?

Let’s look at Caleb Williams for starters. He’s the all-American quarterback for the University of Southern California, a Heisman Trophy winner, and the star of a Wendy’s burger ad campaign. You’ve seen him plumping the new loaded nacho cheeseburger. He’s also been hanging around the Nissan Heisman House and pitching Dr. Pepper.

He’s a junior at USC and the projected first pick in next year’s NFL draft, and his NIL value is estimated at $3.2 mill per year. In fact, so much power does he wield that his dad suggested last year that were an NFL team not to his son’s liking draft him when he came out, he’d simply stay in school for another year and wait for a different NFL team to get first dibs. After all, when you’re already making millions playing on a good college team (in LA, no less), why make marginally more millions playing for an el-stinko NFL team that you don’t want to?

But the big NIL news comes out of Salt Lake City. It was announced earlier this month that every scholarship player on the football team of the University of Utah — there’s 85 of them — would receive, gratis, a brand-new 2024 Dodge Ram 1500 Big Horn Night Edition truck. They would receive a free lease, with everything covered by the Crimson Collective, a group of boosters organized to throw money at Ute athletes, as long as they remain on scholarship. For playing college football! Or not playing — second-string long snapper gets the wheels, too, as long as he’s on schollie.

Also recently in the news are these nuggets:

  • Five-star prospects — these are much-desired high school athletes — are demanding up to $5,000 just to make an official visit to a school. Wrote Gene Smith, athletic director at Ohio State: “Student-athletes and their parents visit campuses at the expense of those universities to evaluate where they may make a commitment. A practice of asking a school for a fee to simply visit campus has emerged; asking for $5,000 just to visit has become common. During visits, discussions now emerge regarding how much a student-athlete can expect from NIL.”
  • Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, after his Wildcats got blown out at Georgia 51–13, urged Kentucky fans to pony up more money so the Wildcats could buy better players.
  • Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy spoke truth when he urged his school to forget about upgrading facilities — long a major “arms race” among striving college football factories attempting to lure recruits — and simply dump the money in the NIL collective to buy better players. Said Gundy: “If you brought in 50 of our players and said we’ll NIL you $50–$60,000 a year cash or we can build you a new weight room and meeting room, which one do you want? They’re gonna take [the money], right? That’s what kids do nowadays.”
  • Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck openly begged for NIL money to keep his team together: “We had players that were here that are now gone, playing at another school that should be here playing right now. Because again, NIL. We didn’t pay them. We didn’t pay them enough. That is the fact of life.”
  • A Tennessee quarterback recruit reportedly garnered an $8 million NIL deal before taking one collegiate snap.

Add the Transfer Portal Madness

If that isn’t wild enough for you, look what’s going on in the transfer portal.

Big-time college athletics decided its transfer rules were unfair to athletes, so it loosened them up. It used to be that once a kid signed a letter of intent to play at a top-tier school, in football or men’s or women’s basketball or baseball or men’s hockey, that kid was bound to the school for four years. He could transfer if he liked, but if he went to another top-tier school, he had to sit out a year.

The NCAA dropped that rule in 2021, the same year NIL came in. Now kids can transfer once without penalty — they need not sit out at all; they can step immediately onto the field or court upon enrollment at the new institution.

Every year the number of athletes taking advantage of the new rule grows. In football, for example, over 2,300 FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision, the category the big schools belong to) scholarship players entered the portal in the past 12 months. That is, over 20 percent of FBS scholarship players have sought a new home in the past year.

Coaches coming into new programs can turn over their rosters virtually overnight before even coaching their first game at the new school. Colorado, helmed now by Deion Sanders, the self-acclaimed “Coach Prime,” had 50 players transfer in and 57 transfer out this past year; other schools with big numbers include Louisville (27 in, 25 out), Ole Miss (24 in, 35 out), and Arizona State (28 in, 32 out). Schools in the game’s most powerful conference, the Southeastern Conference (SEC), averaged 21 transfers out.

The transfer portal offers mixed blessings. It offers coaches of bad teams the chance to get good quickly; it allows players to seek more advantageous circumstances without penalty. But on the flip side, it promotes instability. Coaches are forever guessing who’s on their rosters. Players are, in effect, discouraged from sticking it out, from fighting through adversity. Fans can’t get to know players on the teams they love because the rosters are so fluid — every year it’s a new group.

And while players move to increase the odds of more playing time, a big factor in the transfer portal is more money from NIL at the new school. A player asks: What kind of NIL deal can you arrange for me? A good player plays bidders off against one another, seeking the best deal.

The transfer portal is free agency by another name and, combined with virtually unregulated NIL activities, transforms college athletics into bidding wars for prime athletes with practically no limits.

The Role of Congress

It’s unclear what Congress can do to clean this up. The administrators testifying this week wanted at least a few rules to rein in the collectives.

Said Baker: “We want to partner with Congress to … curtail inducements and prevent collectives and other third parties from tampering with students.” Added Petitti:

Student-athletes are frequently being induced by collectives to attend specific institutions and transfer from one school to another without a true NIL deal. This has resulted in a pay-for-play system primarily controlled by boosters and executed under the guise of NIL. We are concerned that management of college athletics is shifting away from the universities to collectives. They are now trying to create competitive advantages.

What Congress can do is lay down a national standard by which the collectives can be regulated. States have passed laws that give schools within their borders NIL advantages over other states, resulting in an unfair recruitment playing field. Said Baker, “We would like to have a national standard where a patchwork of state laws (more than 30) currently exist.”

Of the senators chipping in with comments, John Kennedy (R-La.) did not disappoint with his suggestion: “Try to get together to come up with a new system,” he said, “that looks like someone designed it on purpose.”

Given Congress’ full plate of issues and its propensity to overregulate, maybe these athletic administrators should strive to put their own house in order before appealing to the bureaucrats for help.