NIL: Panacea or Pandora’s box?

By Bill Sutton

To be accurate, my vision of the present and the future indicates that it will be a combination of the headline. I have been a proponent of compensation for student athletes since 1980 when my doctoral adviser at Oklahoma State University, Dr. John F. Rooney, was preparing to publish a book titled “The Recruiting Game.” Rooney had some interesting proposals, and I was inspired to take on football recruiting as my dissertation topic in 1983. That experience — a study that encompassed the recruitment of Parade High School All-American football players 1973-1982, and the fact that the Jimmy Johnson era at OSU led to probation for recruiting violations — provides me a unique perspective to examine the intended and unintended consequences that NIL presents.

The Good

Student athletes will be able to profit from their name, image and likeness in a variety of ways. We have already seen merchandising efforts, partnerships with local restaurants, and opportunities to serve as influencers and amplifiers for national brands. It will also provide true opportunities for student athletes to become instructors and offer clinics and camps where their expertise and skills will be used to help others develop their talents. These are great opportunities for all student athletes regardless of the sport and equal opportunity regardless of gender. However, the popularity and visibility of the student athlete will definitely affect their earning potential. For example, a summer QB camp owned and operated by Trevor Lawrence would be more popular than camps with other players.

The inertia in Indianapolis played a huge role in getting this front and center, combined with the impetus provided by the U.S. Supreme Court and state legislatures that in reality began working to ensure that their universities would not be at a competitive disadvantage to universities in states that passed the NIL legislation. While not true pay-for-play with minimum wage, salaries, workmen’s compensation, etc., it is a start for the student athletes who have generated billions of dollars for athletic departments, television networks and the NCAA over the years.

We will also see opportunities for entire teams, and a lot of experimentation by brands to stick a toe in the water. As I am writing this, the University of Michigan announced a deal with its student athletes to sell jerseys with their names on them. Also look for a reemergence of video games featuring current and past college players who will now earn a return on their accomplishments. A number of schools are putting together educational programs to advise their students athletes about NIL, which is absolutely essential.

The Bad

I’ve studied the recruitment of heavily recruited football players and have some insight into what could happen with the difficulty associated with trying to monitor a system that has now provided every student athlete the opportunity, in Jay-Z’s words, to become a businessman. Who better to help a student athlete understand how to become a business person than local business people or alumni business people who may be more than eager to assist? By the way, the spelling for these business people is B-O-O-S-T-E-R-S. Yes, in my belief NIL opens the door for boosters to offer what they have secretly in the past: lodging, cars, food and money in a new system that makes those offers permissible and allows both parties to seek each other and enter into contracts. The parking lots reserved for students may soon resemble a showroom of the latest makes and models promoted by student athletes. Restaurants will offer meals in the hopes of drawing more patrons hoping to meet their local sports heroes and perhaps secure an autograph — which may now be associated with a fee — along with the sale of game-worn apparel. Apartment complexes may offer free rent to student athletes in exchange for their promotional activities, encouraging prospective renters to select that complex as it would have an implied level of cool.

The Ugly

The possibility that future recruiting trips will now include boosters traveling with the respective coach to present the possible NIL opportunities associated with that particular university and its marketplace. Even uglier? The recruiting party is met by the prospective recruit and his agent who is there only as his/her marketing representative to weigh the potential NIL opportunities and the presumed value of the opportunities associated with attending that particular university.

On another note, businesses and brands will be assuming a level of risk because 18- to 23-year-olds sometimes make poor decisions, and that risk will fall to their brand and promotional partners as well.

The Uncertain

Will the elite programs continue to be elite? Will NIL opportunities in larger metropolitan markets have an advantage over other programs? I am speculating that NIL might be significantly leveraged by the Los Angeles schools because of their unique entertainment and business opportunities. Would NIL be enough to restore the football programs at those universities to their past glories? What will happen with student athletes receiving Pell grants?

Will there be an enforcement attempt by the NCAA to control the amount of NIL revenue a student athlete can earn? Will boosters run rampant without fear of penalty or probation? Will NIL influence the transfer portal and encourage even more movement and volatility in college athletics? Will NIL be the death knell of our amateur athletics system? Oh wait — hasn’t that really happened already? 

Bill Sutton (billsuttonandassociates@gmail.com) is director emeritus of the Vinik Graduate Sport Business Program at USF, dean of Elevate Academy and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com

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