Now It's Legal to Pay College Football Players. But Is It Good for the Game?
Paying college football players used to be illegal. Not anymore.
Now it’s legal to pay players through name, image and likeness (NIL), and the game won't ever be the same again.
Will this make football better or worse?
Welcome to the NFL Junior League
As one Stadium Talk Facebook commenter put it:
"NIL stands for Now It's Legal. Paying players has gone on under the table for years. Now you're seeing who's going to pay the most to stay relevant and who's going to pay the most to try and be relevant. This is the NFL junior league now. That's all it will be from here on out."
Name, image and likeness has opened the floodgates for money grabs. Forget the bag men. Now all you need are savvy and rich boosters. It's the wild, wild West in college football.
What Is Name, Image and Likeness?
Name, image and likeness (NIL) allows NCAA college student-athletes to profit from their identity in branding deals. The NCAA adopted the policy on July 1, 2021, giving Division 1, Division 2 and Division 3 athletes in any sport the opportunity to be compensated for their NIL.
The policy provides the following guidance to college athletes, recruits, their families and member schools:
- Individuals can engage in NIL activities that are consistent with the law of the state where the school is located. Colleges and universities may be a resource for state law questions.
- College athletes who attend a school in a state without an NIL law can engage in this type of activity without violating NCAA rules related to name, image and likeness.
- Individuals can use a professional services provider for NIL activities.
- Student-athletes should report NIL activities consistent with state law or school and conference requirements to their school.
That means over 500,000 athletes across the college sports landscape are eligible to make money while in school, whether their state has a NIL law in place or not. Over 450,000 of those student-athletes have found ways to earn an income with their NIL by partnering with local businesses on promotions. But NIL legislation varies by state, so every athlete needs to do their homework.
The average annual NIL value for athletes is around $1,000-$10,000, but some make much more money than that. College football and men's basketball players on scholarship in one of the major conferences can expect to earn a minimum of $50,000 each year they play because of the influx of cash from booster collectives brokering name, image and likeness deals.
That prediction, based on market trends, was made in early 2021 by Blake Lawrence, a former Nebraska linebacker and co-founder and CEO of Opendorse, a company that helps athletes and schools navigate the ever-changing NIL landscape "since 99 percent of student-athletes don't have agents."
The Rich Get Richer
As expected, big-name college football programs have benefited the most with NIL so far. Ohio State football players were among those able to take early advantage of NIL rules with autograph signings. In January 2022, Ohio State got extra serious and assigned one athletic department employee for each of its 36 sports as NIL points of contact for their athletes. As of June, the school said its athletes had inked over 1,000 deals, Sports Illustrated reported.
The schools that don't keep pace will be at a disadvantage. According to Cleveland.com, Ohio State football coach Ryan Day admits the price tag to keep a championship-level roster is $13 million in NIL money. For an 85-man team, that's about $150,000 per player. Or $500,000 for the top 26 players/starters. That's not chump change.
Another fun fact from Sports Illustrated: "From 1998 to 2020, six teams won 74 percent of the national championships: Alabama (6), LSU (3), Clemson (2), Florida State (2), Florida (2) and Ohio State (2). Five of the six are not only inside the top 12 nationally in 2019 athletic budgets but also have reeled in the best talent in the nation over the last decade. In a study from MaxPreps, seven college football programs have signed 55 percent of the five-star prospects from '11 to '21. They include LSU, Alabama, Clemson, Florida State and Ohio State, as well as USC and Georgia, the '21 national champion."
NIL could lead to college football parity. Anything's possible. But the smart money's on NIL expanding the gap between national title contenders and every other program.
Everybody Can Cash In
Student-athletes (and their families) aren't complaining. After bringing in billions of dollars for schools and the NCAA, they can get paid for their skills beyond a scholarship.
There are lots of big NIL endorsement deals in college sports. Student-athletes can earn big bucks by licensing their names, images and likenesses to merchandisers, sponsors, marketers and media outlets that cater to their network and fans. Student-athletes with an entrepreneurial spirit can create their own brands like Georgia defensive lineman Jonathan Jefferson, who started his own online merchandise business called Uno Jon.
Five-star high school quarterback Nico Iamaleava, a senior from Long Beach, California, and one of the top players in the country, reportedly got $8 million from a Tennessee NIL collective to bring glory back to Rocky Top for the Volunteers, who haven't won 10 games in a season since 2010.
That gives hope to the also-rans and have-nots. If they have the money, they can buy the best players and compete with the best teams.
Even high school teams are getting in on the act. High school powerhouse St. John Bosco in Bellflower, California, signed the first team-wide NIL deal at a high school level with a sports technology company called KONGiQ. Each player on the varsity roster will get $400 to be an "influencer" and promote the company's brand on social media by selling a product they use for weight training.
This is just the beginning. More NIL deals are on the horizon.
Survival of the Richest
Traditionalists may be opposed to paying high school students. But the NIL train has left the station.
"Not one parent has reached out to us with concerns or questions as to what this is about. The way they’re approaching it is that it’s a small job," St. John Bosco head coach Jason Negro told USA Today. "The kids are being paid for a service to be an influencer and talk about it in a positive light. They’re not getting rich off it, but this isn’t a gimmick. It’s basic and straightforward.
"As a high school football coach, this is just another layer of information I'm going to have to learn and be knowledgable in to be able to educate our young men as they come through. Just as an example, we’re implementing a financial literacy course to help them deal with that and understand how to manage money and things like that."
The rich have been getting richer in sports for decades. Name, image and likeness (NIL) won't change that. It just makes it legal to pay players now. SEC collectives still will have bigger deals to offer than non-Power Five schools most of the time. But NIL empowers student-athletes like never before and gives every school a chance to level up.
The landscape of amateur and professional sports is changing. It's best to embrace the economic evolution of football and figure out how to turn this moment into a positive and use NIL to your advantage as a player, coach, booster, team, school or fan.
If that's too much to ask, at least we can appreciate that Ron Meyer, who got the death penalty at SMU for recruiting violations in the 1980s for doing what everybody is doing now, has been vindicated.
We also can root for a Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban cage match after Texas A&M and Alabama square off on the gridiron.
May the richest man win.
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