The current discourse about NIL can't tell the forest from the trees
Let’s make 2 things very clear.
First: Name, Image and Likeness rights for college athletes are a good thing.
The Supreme Court — you may have heard about them lately — ruled 9-0 last year to allow such a system to be put in place for collegiate athletics.
This Supreme Court, where it’s unlikely the Justices would even agree 9-0 on deciding a meal. All of them said the NCAA could not prevent the creation of NIL. There was literally no dissent.
Just a year in, we’re already seeing the good that can come from NIL deals.
Michigan football players Blake Corum and JJ McCarthy have used theirs to benefit charities. Kentucky basketball player Oscar Tshiebwe will delay the NBA Draft for another year because of it. It seems likely Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis will do the same. The latter 2 cases will make their current teams better because of it.
Second: the transfer portal is not inherently bad.
Take the case of Jameson Williams. Ohio State’s receiving corps was so stacked with talent last year that Williams transferred to Alabama for playing time.
If he were stuck as WR4 in Ohio State’s offense, Williams would be waiting another year and risking injury before entering the draft. Instead, he played immediately for the Crimson Tide. He was drafted 13th, right behind former teammates Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave.
It should be possible to believe that these things are good while simultaneously upholding the belief that the thing USC coach Lincoln Riley allegedly is doing with Pitt wide receiver Jordan Addison is trashy.
Yet for whatever reason, many of my colleagues who cover college sports cannot separate the concepts.
The poaching of Jordan Addison
When news broke over the weekend that Addison, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner, is entering the transfer portal with USC as the destination, 2 camps formed. (Addison officially entered the portal Tuesday afternoon.)
There were those, present company included, who saw this as a pretty discouraging moment for college football.
It’s bad enough that the College Football Playoff is completely inaccessible to most teams that play the game. Now fans face a future where they not only know their team doesn’t have a chance, but odds are that their favorite players are liable to leave at the drop of a hat. (Ideally, Uncle Pennybags’ top hat.)
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Reaction to this viewpoint was virulent. No room for nuance permitted.
If you’re against Addison departing Pitt for USC because of money, by God, you must be against capitalism itself!
The most commonly floated canard is that this is an apples-to-apples equivalent to coaches leaving for new jobs each offseason.
Danny, did you call for regulation when Lincoln took the $10 mil a year to leave the school that helped develop him as a coach and fast-tracked him to stardom? https://t.co/tAnmkYwUvm
— Dan Murphy (@DanMurphyESPN) April 30, 2022
This is not an apt analogy.
Coaches have contracts. When they ditch their old job for a higher-paying job, that contract is bought out. The original employer gets something in return.
Furthermore, there’s a very specific window in which coaching changes take place. By the end of the regular season and the start of January, virtually every college football coaching change takes place. The timeline is similar at the end of basketball season.
There are always exceptions, such as when Les Miles turns out to be a creep. But for the most part, coaches don’t leave at the end of spring practice.
Even free agency has rules
While some have compared the new era of player movement to free agency, it bears little resemblance to actual free agency. Because professional free agency comes with collectively-bargained rules.
Players can’t bolt until they’ve played out their contract. And the window for leaving closes well before you’re expected to contribute to the roster in the upcoming season.
Pro sports also offer some form of compensation for the team losing the player. A player of Addison’s caliber likely would be a restricted free agent. His team would receive additional draft picks for his departure.
Most importantly, professional leagues have very strict rules against roster tampering. If an NBA owner or GM so much as mentions a pending free agent’s name, he’ll be slapped with an excessive fine.
Here, Riley and other coaches can outright plunder opposing rosters with no recourse.
And that’s the problematic issue with Addison’s Pitt departure. It’s not about him making money. It seems rather disingenuous to suggest there’s a critical mass of people who are opposed to that.
The concern is that there is nothing preventing the sport’s blue-bloods from choking the 100-plus other programs into submission. It is decidedly naïve to think those lesser programs won’t start feeling it at the gate. Attendance is already in steady decline across the board.
Once the squeeze tightens further, more than a few schools would eventually drop a sport as costly as football.
By definition, that’s bad for college football. And the potential elimination of hundreds of scholarships for players who have no designs on going pro is quite the blow to educational and economic opportunity.
The NCAA is to blame
It would be easy enough to lay blame on the feet of Lincoln Riley, who has proven a slippery opportunist at every turn. A man who once tried to block 1 of his backup quarterbacks from transferring to Big 12 rival West Virginia suddenly has no qualms about committing piracy. Allegedly.
But he’s just playing the cards he’s been handed, trying to win a game without rules.
Had the NCAA been blessed with competent leadership rather than oafish president Mark Emmert, it could have been proactive instead of reactive. It could have written the rules that everyone would need to follow, even if they didn’t like them.
Instead, the NCAA is stuck chasing its own tail.
In all likelihood, there will only be 1 way out of this mess. Contracts.
Writing those contracts will be painstaking. At some point, student-athletes will be considered employees. Unionization is likely since you can’t collectively bargain without a collective.
The structure might end up a lot like European soccer. There will be a clear delineation between haves and have-nots. But the have-nots might be rewarded with transfer fees for their top talent. Or since there are no draft picks in college, additional scholarships.
Coaches have had it good for decades. Players are finally getting in on it, as was long overdue. But without structure, fans will get left behind.
And if fans are ignored, there will someday be consequences affecting how much anyone will profit.