Current NIL chaos a clear sign that college athletics still has a long way to go and needs to get there fast
After years of people lining up to fight for college athletes to get a piece of the pie, talented players in all sports across the entire country are finally getting paid.
Chalk that up on the good side of the ledger.
There is a bad side, though, and it appears to be tied directly to the fact that, while paying athletes seems to be a good thing, doing so in an unregulated environment has led to significant chaos and confusion.
This is not about whether these athletes should be paid. You know that argument. For decades, college athletes have made millions of dollars for their universities — and billions for the NCAA — without getting so much as a single cent for their efforts.
I know that a free education is nothing to scoff at, but we’re so far past that point today.
Now, we’re staring down a situation where athletes are actually getting what they deserve and yet people on both sides of the coin are struggling to decipher how that should look, how much is too much and how to monitor and manage the whole situation.
Yikes. It can’t be this hard.
And it can’t include retroactive rulings and real time enforcement that changes with the wind.
If it does, that may be the strongest case yet for a new leadership model in college athletics.
I’ve been a fan of name, image and likeness compensation from the beginning. Nothing wrong with a college athlete attaching his or her name or smile to a brand and having that company kick them a little cash to say thanks. Win-win.
What I’m not a fan of is NIL deals that read like professional contracts. The first such situation that gave me pause in my support of NIL deals came when former K-State guard Nijel Pack agreed to a two-year deal for a whopping $800,000 — and a car! — when announcing his move to Miami.
This is Nijel Pack we’re talking about. Solid player. Bordering on great. But is he a star?
If a guy like that can command that kind of deal, imagine what the Zion Williamsons and Andrew Wiggins of the world would have been worth in the past or will be worth in the future.
Not long after Pack’s deal was announced, reports surfaced that Miami guard Isaiah Wong was considering entering the transfer portal if his NIL deal wasn’t sweetened. Ugh.
I get it. Free market. Get what you deserve. Take as much as they’ll pay you. I’m all for that in theory. But if we’re going to continue to call this amateur sports, and if these competitors are going to continue to be called student-athletes, then there has to be a trade-off.
For me, the solution is simple. You cap it.
Regardless of sport — or maybe even by sport, given that basketball and football tend to bring in way more money than the rest of them — student-athletes are only allowed to make so much money in any given school year.
Put the cap up there pretty high so these guys and gals can cash in on the business owners and investors willing to shell out big bucks. But don’t make it so ridiculous that it encourages a haves-versus-have-nots situation any more than we already have.
Let’s say $100,000 per year. That’s nearly a half a million dollars over a college athlete’s four-year career and that, on an annual basis, is far better than most college graduates would make in their first year in the work force.
I understand that there are people out there who don’t like this idea. I even get that lawsuits could come into play in defense of these athletes. But both of those camps could be placated if the rules are strong and clear.
Again, it’s all about the trade-off. If you want to play as a college athlete and play college athletics, your earning potential is capped.
But what about the coaches who sign crazy contracts and make all kinds of money? They’re professionals. If you want the freedom to earn an unlimited amount of money, turn professional. And good luck with that.
I’m fine with the Lamborghinis and Ferraris. I’m fine with college athletes raking in large sums of cash for true NIL deals. I’m fine with sponsorships, endorsements, merchandise and athlete representation.
I’m not fine with pay-for-play contracts being executed under the NIL umbrella and leaders from the SEC and Pac-12 visiting Washington D.C. to ask for the federal government’s help in getting control of this thing 10 months after it all changed forever last July.
I don’t think anyone who loves college athletics should be either.
Kansas coach Bill Self recently said it up best when he told a Houston television station, "It's out of control right now."
The question is can anyone get it under control again? Time will tell. But it might be a long time before we get that answer.