When the NCAA reversed course last summer to allow athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness, its No. 1 concern was preventing NIL from becoming a recruiting inducement.
As the NIL era’s one-year anniversary approaches, the NCAA’s wish has predictably not come true.
“Kids are literally choosing their college destinations based off of NIL,” Josh Hairston, a former Duke basketball player and current agent for Lift Sports Management said. “If you don’t have a NIL package that seems good enough for kids and their families, then you can’t even have a conversation. No matter what school you are, you could be a power five school or whatever.”
Hairston discussed, among many topics, NIL and its impact on college athletics on The News & Observer’s ACC Now podcast this week.
Just last summer, after actions by state legislatures around the country and federal court cases forced the NCAA to act, NIL deals that previously would have compromised eligibility were suddenly allowed.
Since July 1 of last year, outside companies, organizations or individuals, not the schools themselves, have been able to sign current college players to marketing deals. That’s how Duke’s Wendell Moore, for example, promoted Bojangles restaurant and SlingTV last season while helping lead the Blue Devils to the Final Four.
College athletes can now sell their autographs or appear at events for a fee. They can sell personalized, private messages on Cameo. All-ACC center Armando Bacot from North Carolina is on Cameo in addition to his NIL deal with Jimmy’s Famous Seafood, which was announced last month.
Paolo Banchero, a projected lottery pick in the June 23 NBA draft, signed a deal to appear in a video game last November during his freshman season at Duke.
“I think NIL was huge for the college game, obviously a little late,” said Moore, a Lift Sports Management client who is also projected to be a first-round pick in this month’s NBA draft. “I mean, NIL is the definitely the reason some kids are staying in college instead of trying to pursue NBA dreams. I mean sometimes guys maybe, like, you might want to get drafted but you are not getting drafted so you have to work your way back in.”
Opportunity and concern
Just last week, incoming Duke freshman Dereck Lively signed a deal with Topps trading card company for college basketball cards that will come out next season.
“Now you have the ability to go back to college and make probably just as much if not more money that you’ll be making playing at the professional level,” Moore said. “Obviously NIL is definitely doing some great things. I mean, it’s getting guys paid. That’s all you can hope for.”
Moore’s former Duke teammate, Trevor Keels, has a different opinion. He said he didn’t factor into the NIL into his decision to enter the NBA draft after his freshman season with the Blue Devils.
“I honestly didn’t really care about NIL,” Keels said. “I kind of still really don’t care about it. I feel like certain players now, it’s just going to school is based off NIL. That shouldn’t be your main focus. Your main focus should be winning the championship, getting better at that school. That’s all I’m about. So I’ll focus on winning. NIL, that comes along when it comes along. My main focus is on trying to win, trying to get better every day. Some deals come your way and you look at them, but your main focus shouldn’t be that.”
Hairston played at Duke from 2010-14, in the days before NIL deals were allowed. He’s all for players now having opportunities to profit off their NIL. At the same time, the current situation concerns him.
“I feel like there needs to be some sort of educational piece, because the two main things for me is guys are taking money just to take money,” Hairston said “And they they’re not thinking about their brand and how that looks. And then the second piece is, education wise, nobody’s teaching them financial literacy. Do you get all this money and spend it? Or do you save for taxes? How do you pay your taxes? All that sort of stuff.”
Because the schools weren’t making deals or paying the athletes, many leaders in the college sports world accepted the new reality when the courts pushed the NCAA to allow NIL deals.
At the time, now retired Duke basketball coach and NIL proponent Mike Krzyzewski said, it sounded simple. That was the theory. The reality is far different.
“People who make money never do simple things,” Krzyzewski said. “They look at windows of opportunity. So the NCAA has been hit with a tsunami of entrepreneurship. A tsunami. They cannot handle it. The current structure that we’re dealing with now is outdated and cannot handle what’s going on in college athletics.”
Landscape remains in flux
In May, the NCAA attempted to slow what it saw as a burgeoning pay-for-play environment where collectives formed by boosters were soliciting funds to set up NIL deals to attract transfers or incoming freshmen recruits.
“Specifically,” the statement posted on the NCAA’s website read, “the guidance defines as a booster any third-party entity that promotes an athletics program, assists with recruiting or assists with providing benefits to recruits, enrolled student-athletes or their family members . The definition could include ‘collectives’ set up to funnel name, image and likeness deals to prospective student-athletes or enrolled student-athletes who might be considering transferring. NCAA recruiting rules preclude boosters from recruiting and/or providing benefits to prospective student-athletes.”
But last week, while saying it was investigating potential rules violations, the NCAA’s enforcement staff informed its member schools in a letter obtained by Sports Illustrated, that the eligibility of current or incoming athletes was not in question.
“The enforcement staff is aware of stories reported publicly and other instances in which NIL benefits are potentially being used inappropriately,” a letter read. “We understand members’ urgency and the need for swift, fair action in connection with the interim policy on NIL.”
But, to calm fears, the letter also stated that NCAA enforcement staff “is not focused on the eligibility of current or prospective student-athletes.”
The push to make college athletes employees, based on the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, continues as well. A case working its way through the federal court system, Johnson v. The NCAA seeks to do that. On Monday, The Athletic reported the Southeastern Conference filed a brief in the case supporting the NCAA’s position that athletes should not be considered employees.
So the college athletics landscape remains in flux.
Duke basketball coach Jon Scheyer embraced the new NIL reality last week when he hired Rachel Baker as the team’s first general manager. Formerly employed by Nike in grassroots marketing and with the NBA, Baker is tasked with, among other things, helping Duke’s players and families navigate the new NIL world.
“The state of college basketball is growing and changing at an exponential rate,” Scheyer said in a statement announcing Baker’s hiring. “Rachel is a one-of-a-kind talent with unique experience that will provide our players and their families with an unparalleled resource and partner as we navigate new frontiers of college basketball together.”
Everyone is adjusting. And the cost of doing business, both from the schools hiring staff to handle new initiatives and the boosters and companies that fund NIL deals, continues to rise.
“I mean, you just look at the landscape of college football, the SEC what they’re able to do with NIL,” Hairston said. “I mean, they’re able to give guys tons and tons of money. And it’s hard for other schools to compete. And so, I just know off of experience, that’s what’s going on. If you don’t have NIL, if NIL isn’t a good talking point for some families or some schools, then it’s just like, `Okay, well, you know, thank you for your interest, but we’re gonna go elsewhere .'”