Improving NIL: College Football Depends on It

A focused image of a football labeled NCAA held by a blurry man
Photo by JV on Unsplash

In the 2021 fiscal year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) generated $1.16 billion in revenue, a figure that pleased athletic directors yet angered many student-athletes, who, until very recently, were not able to monetize their labor and enjoy the benefits of such growth. The popularization of the industry, the multi-million dollar salaries earned by high-profile coaches, and the sold-out stadiums attracting audiences of over one-hundred thousand spectators, caused a public outcry for the athletes themselves to earn a share of these profits. In 2021, the Supreme Court issued the monumental NCAA vs Alston ruling, one that allowed collegiate athletes to earn money from their name, image and likeness (NIL). While empowering athletes to profit from the industry that depends on them is progress, the lack of regulations surrounding NIL is causing a seismic shift in the landscape of collegiate athletics. The implications of NIL reach far beyond the behemoth that is college football, but investigating NIL’s impacts on the NCAA and all of its twenty-four sports is perhaps too broad a scope for my research. Instead, this research will focus on the new benefits and challenges facing college football players, paying close attention to why these discussions remain relevant to fans, university alumni, other NCAA sports, and non-student athletes.

College football rakes in an average of $31.9 million per university annually. Basketball is the distant second, earning $8.1 million per school (Malone). One cannot ignore the simple reality when it comes to American collegiate sports: football rules. With the financial stakes as high as they are, athletic directors, school officials, and passionate fans are eager to improve their team and maximize their returns. Wealthy alumni and football fanatics, also known as “boosters,” have quickly responded to the Alston ruling, funneling donations through NIL and creating a multi-million dollar market for sixteen-year old quarterbacks. These transactions have the potential to severely tilt the balance of college football firmly in favor of the wealthy programs with well-funded collectives. Most troublesome, however, is how the increased pressure to perform and ink endorsement deals will result in an era where student-athletes are reduced to mere athletes. Athletes who, like professionals, are incentivized only to make decisions that maximize profits and who must not only please their team but also corporations who invest in their performance. While many argue that it is not the NCAA’s responsibility to promote financial equity in collegiate sports or to protect athletes from crushing expectations, I would point to the fact that the NCAA was born in the early twentieth century out of an urgent need to protect football players. Let me be clear: protecting football players today certainly does not mean reverting to the pre-Alston era, one in which athletes were exploited for their labor. College athletes should be able to enjoy access to every opportunity afforded to regular students, such as the ability to accept internships or off-campus jobs, opportunities that were unethically and illegally withheld from them for decades. The NCAA must, however, establish regulations to support a more equitable, more sustainable, and more practical name, image, and likeness framework. If they fail to, the product of college football will be less attractive to fans, and the collegiate experience will be less rewarding for the athletes themselves. When business, athletics, and education all collide, there must be rules.

The NCAA mandates that all participants must maintain their status as an “amateur” athlete in order to compete. Current NCAA bylaws assert that “student-athletes shall be amateurs…and their participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived. Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student-athletes should be protected from exploitation ....” It is paternalistic and naïve for the NCAA to assert that their athletes should be motivated primarily by forms of non-monetary compensation such as “mental and social benefits.” High-level football players are aware of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that await them in professional leagues if they perform well, and many of these young athletes who come from underprivileged backgrounds understand the pressure of earning a National Football League (NFL) contract in order to support their families. Furthermore, in an era where the line between “professional” and “amateur” is increasingly blurry, what does the term “amateur” mean in the first place?

The NCAA outlined firm boundaries on amateurism before relaxing their NIL guidelines, prohibiting students from (1) accepting payment of any kind for participation in collegiate athletics, (2) playing on professional (as compared with amateur) sports teams, and (3) signing a contract to be represented by an agent. Perhaps a brief history of the evolution of college football will offer useful context to how the NCAA achieved its tax-exempt status and why, for so long, it was prohibited for athletes to profit from their name, image, and likeness.

The NCAA was formed in 1906 to organize college football and legitimize it as a safe sport for student-athletes. In the early days of college football, serious injuries and even fatalities were not uncommon. In 1905, over eighteen deaths occurred in intercollegiate football competitions (Smith 12). The NCAA, originally the “Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States,” established a uniform rules system and governing board to improve player safety. It was this uniquely American game and a desire to make it safe that gave rise to the NCAA. As televisions, radios, and higher education became more accessible following World War II, trends that inspired a boom in the popularity of collegiate athletics, the NCAA expanded its governance across sports other than football, and regulated both the rules on and off of the playing fields. A handful of gambling and recruitment scandals prompted the enactment of the “Sanity Code” in 1948, which was created to “alleviate the proliferation of exploitative practices in the recruitment of student-athletes” (Smith 14). The NCAA signed its first television contract worth over one million dollars in 1952, and as public interest in collegiate athletics continued to soar, so too did the NCAA’s regulatory power. It strictly enforced rules and possessed the enforcement capacity to swiftly punish any players, coaches, and school officials who violated them. In 1978, the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations convened to address allegations that the NCAA was inconsistently and unfairly enforcing its rules. Prominent law, religion, and sport scholar Rodney K. Smith identifies the two main reasons the NCAA faced public scrutiny in this time period: “On the one hand, it was criticized for responding inadequately to the increased commercialization of intercollegiate athletics, with all its attendant excesses; while on the other hand, it was criticized for unfairly exercising its regulatory authority.” The draconian enforcement of certain rules, the double-standards in others, and the increased popularity which resulted in legal challenges and more complex nuance to the NCAA’s regulatory authority brought the organization’s credibility into question.

Throughout this sustained boom of commercialization and beyond, the NCAA has always found refuge in its status as a “charitable organization” because its primary objective is “fostering…amateur athletics.” In the Pittsburgh Tax Review Journal, Brian Bunner explains that while charitable organizations are subject to federal income taxes for unrelated business income (UBIT), “certain items may be specifically excluded from UBIT” in the context of the NCAA, including “‘reasonable’ salaries for coaches.” The discourse surrounding prominent football coaches’ paychecks was and remains a major point of contention surrounding the college football industry. In August of 2022, University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban signed an eleven-year contract worth $93.6 million, resulting in an average salary of $11.7 million, earning him the title of highest paid public employee in the country (Thornton).

Two major antitrust decisions shifted this landscape, a landscape in which coaches were the only figures in the locker room allowed to profit from their work. The Ninth Circuit’s decision in O’Bannon vs NCAA (2015) asserted that the NCAA could not prevent universities from granting athletic scholarships for certain cost-of-living expenses. The aforementioned Supreme Court’s NCAA vs Alston (2021) decision barred colleges from denying athletes access to educational benefits such as free tutoring or paid internships. On July 1, 2021 the NCAA activated a policy which relaxed NIL restrictions, allowing their athletes to be compensated by third parties for their name, image, and likeness. For many athletes, the policy meant very little. Yet for the elite echelon of star college football players, the revised guidelines opened the floodgates to a market that promised substantial, in some cases life-changing amounts of money. Immediately, football players began signing endorsement contracts, posing for billboards, and appearing in commercials. Before even starting a game for the Crimson Tide, quarterback Bryce Young had already inked NIL deals worth almost $1 million. According to On3, a sports digital media and marketing company with an extensive NIL database, Young’s valuation currently totals $3.2 million.

It would be reductive to claim that NIL deals are only being handed out to the exclusive club of household names. There are a handful of cases in which NIL has elevated the platforms of more anonymous athletes. For example, Built Brands, a Utah based nutrition bar company, offered an NIL deal to the entire Brigham Young University football roster, and covered the full tuition for players who were not on scholarship (Stephenson 280). The players were rewarded with scholarships and financial packages, and Built Brands reaped the benefits of the increased exposure the BYU team provided them. These transactions are mutually beneficial, as are the majority of endorsement deals. The complications arise when one investigates the longer-term negative psychological implications and the prolonged legal complications that can result and have arisen in cases already.

The stresses of being a student-athlete should not be underestimated. The world watched as Simone Biles, an Olympian widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics, citing intense physiological pressures as the reason for her sudden exit. It is reasonable to assume that collegiate athletes face similar pressures as Biles; they must balance academics, social life, sleep, and training all while confronting the crushing expectations of fans who ruthlessly critique their performance.

The prevalence of sports gambling only exacerbates such expectations. A conservative 2020 estimate suggests that at least $1 billion are bet on college football annually, and research firm Eilers and Krejcik gaming estimate that approximately 12% of revenue for sports books serving U.S. customers are generated from college football (Purdum). Considering the increase in sports gambling due to COVID lockdowns and the popularity of illegal betting sites, it is likely that the true 2022 figure is much higher. Statistics show that these psychological strains bear very real, very concerning results, as collegiate athletes resort to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms. A 1991 study found that 89% of collegiate athletes admitted to using alcohol in response to injuries or pressure and 33.2% of NCAA athletes reported experiencing episodes of depression in a more recent 2019 study (Carreathers 1). The data is clear: our athletes are stressed, and it is resulting in a mental health crisis.

In order to mitigate stress being placed on athletes, the NCAA rightly prohibited NIL deals that hinged on on-the-field incentives. These types of deals would involve a firm offering a player a bonus for every touchdown scored, quarterback sacked, or game won. This regulation protects players from adding more financial pressure to their competitions than they already face. But if the NCAA really wants to provide a positive NIL that reduces stress on players and resentment in locker rooms, they must go a step further and ban off-the-field incentives as well. Consider the case of Spencer Rattler, a highly recruited quarterback who began his career at The University of Oklahoma. Rattler signed a deal with popular fast food chain Raising Cane’s. His $113,000 dollar deal came with the possibility of reaching $800,000 if he reached a certain quota of social media followers (Stephenson 287). Instead of focusing on team-oriented goals, these kinds of contracts encourage athletes to prioritize their personal brand. The ripple effects are extensive. Rattler was incentivized to attain more attention, whether he wanted the extra publicity or not. He was perhaps more likely to be perceived as selfish, egotistical, or self-centered by his teammates, most of whom had not signed lucrative deals and may have perceived him as less concerned with the group and more concerned with himself. Most importantly, the public nature of these massive contracts changed the way fans viewed Rattler: not as a college student, but instead as a professional worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and who was expected to perform to such a standard. Ultimately, even when Rattler and the Oklahoma Sooners defeated the West Virginia Mountaineers to achieve a 3-0 record, a chorus of boos reverberated throughout Oklahoma’s 86,000 seat stadium, as fans and classmates of Rattler’s expressed their frustration with his performance. The crowd stridently called for Caleb Williams, Rattler’s backup, to replace him (Stephenson, 286). Rattler would transfer to South Carolina at the conclusion of the season.

The added pressure of NIL is not only applied to collegiate athletes, most of whom are technically adults, but also to younger athletes. What many do not know is that high school athletes are often the most highly sought after NIL partners. While universities themselves cannot offer money to prospective recruits in exchange for a commitment, influential groups of fans that the NCAA describes as “representatives of a school’s athletic interests,” have been successful in paying high school football players in exchange for commitments to play for a certain school. “Boosters,” groups usually consisting of alumni, are assuming an active role in recruiting. Perhaps the most dramatic moments of the 2022 college football calendar year did not occur on the gridiron in November, but rather behind microphones in May. Nick Saban claimed that Texas A&M and head coach Jimbo Fisher “bought every player” in their recruiting class, a class that was ranked number one overall and is rumored to have cost the Texas A&M boosters $25 million (Rossow). The Volunteer Club, Tennessee’s NIL collective funded by donations from boosters, distributed $4 million dollars to 130 athletes in 2021, setting a goal for $25 million in 2022 according to On3. When asked how collectives have influenced recruiting outcomes, head football coach Lane Kiffen asserted they have “totally changed recruiting. I joke all the time about it….Go ahead and build facilities and these great weight rooms and training rooms, but you ain’t going to have any good players in them if you don’t have NIL money. I don’t care who the coach is or how hard you recruit, that is not going to win over money.” Kiffen’s comments speak to the concerns of many college football fans who worry that their university, with all of its past success, pristine facilities, or academic prowess, will not be able to compete with collectives or attract recruits. If collectives are allowed to operate as they are now, Division I football will almost certainly remold itself into an even less balanced league consisting of two types of teams: dominant programs that can afford to pay its players millions and everyone else.

Furthermore, this pay-for-play model spoils the notion of player and university pride that is unique to collegiate athletics. We do not expect professional athletes to feel unconditionally loyal to their team; we recognize that they are under contract and will play for whatever club offers them the highest salary. The idea that athletes feel the same connection to the university that they play for as the students and alumni is precisely why collegiate sports are romanticized. This illusion is undermined when players decide where to attend or transfer simply based on a paycheck.

Collectives also prey on the young athletes themselves, coercing seventeen-year-olds into attending a university that may not align with their academic or personal interest. Ultimately, the central problem with the way NIL is currently constructed is that it fails to discern legitimate business transactions involving an athlete’s name, image, and likeness from the pay-for-play transactions funded by collectives.

There are a few potential solutions. In May of 2022, the NCAA updated its guidelines to prohibit boosters from communicating with recruits at all, an attempt to weaken the collectives established post-Alston and crack down on pay-for-play. However, such restrictions had limited impact on the influence of collectives. While boosters may not be able to contact a recruit and explicitly offer a sum of money in exchange for a commitment, as collectives continue to grow, they establish an unspoken understanding of the value they can provide recruits given the historical range of past deals. If the NCAA wanted to crack down further, and ban booster-funded collectives all together, the challenges would be daunting. A commitment to enforcing regulations that paralyze collectives would potentially expose the NCAA to more antitrust and litigation headaches, especially considering how different states have different NIL statutes. Another regulation that is perhaps counterintuitive but could be effective would require the NCAA to walk back the updated guidelines from last spring and actually allow collectives to talk with high school recruits and offer NIL money. The catch? Any sponsor that offers payment to a recruit before he or she signs a letter of intent (a document in which a recruit officially declares their intention to attend a university), must pay the athlete the same amount of money during his or her first year of college, regardless of where the athlete ultimately attends. If Tennessee’s collective, for instance, offered a high school quarterback $200,000 to commit to Tennessee, that recruit could accept the offer, change his mind, sign his letter of intent to play for Notre Dame, and still receive $200,000 of compensation from the Volunteer Club his freshman year.

This proposal would involve the NCAA acknowledging the sobering reality of NIL. Regardless of regulations, collectives will always find backchannels to reach out to recruits and inform them of the financial assistance they can offer. Implementing this solution would give high school athletes a clearer exit path, allowing them to walk back any handshakes they make without making financial sacrifices. In the long term, boosters might even leave recruits alone, realizing that any agreements to “pay-for-play” style NIL deals would effectively be meaningless.

Finally, the NCAA should sponsor weekly financial literacy courses so that college football players are more responsible with their money than their professional counterparts. In 2015, Sports Illustrated estimated that 80% of retired National Football League (NFL) players go broke within only their first three years out of the league. A contributing factor to this shocking statistic is that many NFL players come from poor backgrounds and suddenly find themselves surrounded by wealthy people. When they see players around them who have signed extremely lucrative contracts purchasing lavish items, these young players are more likely to feel the need to conform and make reckless purchases. With NIL, these financial disparities are pronounced in college football locker rooms as well. A handful of players like Bryce Young and Caleb Williams may be able to justify buying a Rolls Royce, but such a purchase may, inadvertently, trigger social pressures that result in dangerous spending habits by their teammates, teammates whose NIL earnings might amount to nothing. While team leaders such as coaches, administrators, and the highly paid athletes themselves should be primarily responsible for fostering a culture in which responsible financial practices are encouraged, the NCAA should also provide instruction or resources that promote saving.

College football will never be the same, and for many fans who are enamored by the myth of the amateur quarterback who competes for no other reason than to win glory for his university, this change is a tragedy. But such naïve fans must realize that money has always and will always be the driving force behind the beautiful, American tradition we witness on the gridiron every Saturday. High-level college players were primarily motivated to convince NFL teams they deserve as much money as possible before Alston, and that has not changed since. We must celebrate how the NIL era has restored justice to the collegiate sports model and provided our athletes with opportunities to support themselves and their families. We must also recognize the needs of young athletes, the desires of fans, and the product of college football going forward. How the NCAA decides to address the mounting pressure on their athletes, the shameless activities of collectives, and the imbalance of recruiting power will decide the legacy of this new era in college football.

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