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O’s Thoughts On NIL

NIL is not fixing a problem - it is creating more problems

Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony - Press Conference Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

I hope you are all enjoying your Memorial Day weekend and the unofficial start of summer. I am spending my holiday in downtown Detroit going to Movement Electronic Music Festival. But I am taking some time out from that to kick out this article. Truth is, I started writing this back in March in the aftermath of the Jalen Carter auto accident ordeal. I spent a few days trying to organize my thoughts and then I became focused on March Madness, so it got shelved for a while. But now seems like a good time to bring it back; call it part two of the article from last week about the transfer portal. Naturally, since these two topics have become intertwined, many of your comments in that post were about NIL. And I will say that some of those comments were very strong arguments and even made me think twice on my stance. But I am a stubborn S.O.B. and so I am going to stick to my position.

Like last time, I will state that I am sure many of you will not agree with me. Again, you are free to attack my arguments in your comments. I thank you all for being civil in that last comment section when disagreeing with one another; let’s keep that going please.

Now that I have gotten that out of the way, let me say that I have always been, and will always be, against paying our student-athletes.

Allow me to clarify my position. I am fully in favor of giving players scholarships. I believe those scholarships should cover tuition, room and board, meals and nutrition services, medical care for injuries, travel expenses (maybe even helping parents/siblings get to the occasional game), and a small monthly allowance since these kids probably do not have time to get a job around campus. I believe that the value of every athletic scholarship at a given university should be the same as all others given out, regardless of sport or gender. Yes, a woman on the golf team gets as much as the quarterback on the football team. This is the end of what I feel a university should be allowed to compensate a student-athlete.

In regards to “Name, Image, and Likeness”, I do believe that a collegiate athlete should be allowed to charge money for an autograph if he/she feels so inclined. I am okay with a company paying an athlete to be in a commercial if it feels they would make a good spokesperson or representative. But I do feel that there need to be solid laws in place preventing the schools from creating these opportunities for its athletes. There should not be any sort of a connection between the school and a company looking to use one of its athletes for endorsements, no matter how loose the connection. For example, I don’t think it would be appropriate for Mat Ishbia-owned United Wholesale Mortgage to put an MSU player in a commercial. And I am definitely opposed to universities paying the players simply for being on the team.

So I think there need to be guidelines imposed and enforced by the NCAA as to what constitutes a permissible NIL deal. If we are being honest with one another right now, we can say that the current scenario in the NCAA kingdom is complete chaos. Players are receiving “NIL” money from outside sources simply for selecting to play for a school. This is precisely the sort of thing that led to that school in ann arbor having to forfeit wins and take down banners from their Fab Five era. The point of the whole not paying student-athletes rule was to maintain a high level of integrity in the world of college recruiting; high school recruits should pick their college based on which coach they want to play for, which facilities they want to play and train in, and what student population they want to play for. This new landscape feels like the NCAA saying “Integrity be damned.”

Aside from maintaining the integrity in recruiting, there is an even bigger reason why I am opposed to the paying of college athletes, and why I began writing this article when I originally did. The basis for this long-held belief of mine is simple. I feel that the total financial value of a 4-year athletic scholarship (or 5 if you include redshirting) is an incredible gift to give to someone coming out of high school that in and of itself can have life-altering benefits. In a perfect world, they would all take advantage of the four years of education, the benefits of which are several and obvious. It is okay, also, if a recruit decides they do not want to take advantage of a college scholarship and would rather pursue immediate avenues for making money. By now, there are many routes someone can take with their athletic careers other than playing in the NCAAs. This is most obvious to us in basketball with the G-League and international opportunities, but there are ways to monetize athletic excellence in the non “revenue sports” as well.

Now let me get to why I feel so strongly about this. If I were presenting my case against student-athletes getting compensated for their play in a court of law, then the Jalen Carter incident would be my closing argument. For those of you who are unfamiliar (because I am also sharing this on my social media and outside of the sports blog it was written for), Jalen Carter was one of the top prospects in the 2023 NFL draft; some “draft experts” even called him the best player coming out of college this offseason. He turned 22 years old just a few weeks before the draft and just won back-to-back national championships at the University of Georgia. Just days after Georgia won the 2nd of their consecutive titles, news broke that a player on that team as well as a team staff member lost their lives in a single-car crash. About a month later, it was revealed that just before this fatal crash, Jalen Carter was driving another car racing with the car that crashed at speeds that at times exceeded 100 MPH on city streets sometime after 2 A.M. Fortunately, there were no other cars involved in any crashes.

I am not looking to discuss the legal ramifications of anything that happened in the crash, what kind of charges should or should not be brought against Mr. Carter, or anything of that sort. That is not the point of my article. Here is what I do want to discuss. The car that Jalen was driving that fateful night was a 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. I will happily admit I do not know much about automobiles, but a quick Google search shows me that this car starts at over $90,000. And another internet search I conducted told me that Jalen Carter is from a small town in Florida where the per-capita income (according to the most recent available data) is under $20,000 and close to 10% of the population is below the poverty line. So, either Jalen’s family is pulling the statistics for that small town way up or, more likely, a 21-year-old college student was furnished with a 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk because he is a great football player. This, as I see it, is the largest problem facing the sports industry in this country, and it is a problem that is being perpetuated by decision makers at both the university and the professional levels. And since the recent change in NIL rules was pushed through by court decisions, we can say that the government is also a culprit.

I think there is an issue in the United States where we are all in a hurry to have our children grow up as fast as possible, an issue that has become prevalent in this latest generation of Gen-Xers and even the oldest Millennials becoming parents. There seems to be this massive rush to get our kids walking, talking, reading, and basically all the early-childhood milestones as young as possible. By the time kids reach grade school, they are participating in a different extra-curricular activity each day of the week. High school is now a time for bulking up that college resume. In summary, each step of life has transformed into a rat race to get the best position in the next step; no longer is it about embracing and enjoying the current step.

This phenomenon is also occurring in the world of scholastic athletics. We are grabbing the best middle-schoolers and putting them on high school teams. High school recruits are graduating early in order to get on to college campuses sooner, rather than enjoying their last days of high school with the kids they grew up with. College kids no longer care about leaving a legacy at their school of choice; they would rather get drafted to the pros as soon as possible. This last step is being encouraged by the general managers of the professional teams who have seemingly all settled on a philosophy of drafting for potential rather than accomplishments. In other words, an NBA GM would rather pick the 19-year-old who played one year of college hoops where he only averaged seven points a game but showed great athleticism than the 22-year-old who played four years, improving his stats each year before leading his team on a deep run in the NCAA tournament and proving to be one of the best defensive players in the nation. Somehow that 19-year-old who isn’t ready to play in the NBA just yet and needs some development is more valuable to an NBA team than the 22-year-old who could contribute immediately.

And, of course, that 19-year-old is going to make that jump to the pros. He (or she) does not have the maturity or intelligence at this point to understand he is not ready, and that maybe even that going to the pros now has the potential to shorten the time he sticks in the league. No, all he can think about is the fact that he can start earning millions that much sooner, with no regard to how sustainable those earnings will be. Basically, there is a system in place that incentivizes these young athletes, some who are still teenagers, to enter the world of professional sports as early as possible, mimicking how we are pushing children and teenagers to accelerate through their formative years and adolescence. What is ironic about this is that on the other end, we are currently seeing a postponement of the major milestones of adulthood compared to generations prior. Adults are now getting married later, buying first homes later, and starting to save for retirement later (often because they are settling into a career later after taking a few years to find their industry).

Let me get back to my point, why I feel so strongly that paying college athletes large sums of money is such a bad idea. There is a reason why things are put in certain orders. In a video game (e.g., Zelda on the original Nintendo), you need to accomplish certain tasks in order to receive items or information that will be utilized later on. Similarly, in real life, you go through the stages and gain experience, skills, and knowledge that will help you in the next stage. When doing things out of order, or doing things you have not been prepared for, there can be, and often are, adverse consequences. And one of the things you need to learn as you grow up is how to be financially responsible. In the case of upper-echelon athletes, that means how to handle fame and fortune.

The fact of the matter is that the great majority of professional athletes are going to make way more money than their parents did, and they will suddenly find themselves in an economic class they do not understand. The professional leagues (i.e. NFL, NBA) conduct rookie symposiums and/or orientations for all new players entering their ranks where, among other things, they teach these new guys how to be careful with their money. This includes how to not let your inner circle (or others) influence you into spending your new-found riches in irresponsible ways. The symposium also teaches these rookies that their every move will now be magnified, and any slip-up is going to end up on the evening news. Basically, they are taught that combining late nights, alcohol, and expensive cars will often end up with them in trouble, or worse.

You know who hasn’t really been taught these lessons yet, certainly not to the level that it has been harped upon professional athletes? Yep, that’s right. College athletes. Giving an 18-, 19-, 20, or 21-year old kid the keys to a six-figure automobile, especially when said kid comes from a family in the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, is simply asking for trouble. These young adults have not had the experience in life to handle such a “shiny new toy” responsibly. I wish that the NCAA would have learned a lesson from Hollywood in this regard. We have seen way too often the case of a child-star getting involved with drugs and alcohol, often to the detriment of their careers (and in some cases, their lives). That list includes Macauley Culkin, The Coreys - Feldman and Haim, Lindsey Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Drew Barrymore, Robert Downey Jr., and River Phoenix (who died of an overdose at age 23). It would seem that there is an abundance of evidence to the negative consequences that come when young people are thrust into the adult world when they are not ready for it. Unfortunately, the NCAA has chosen not to learn from Hollywood’s missteps.

In the incident involving Jalen Carter, two people, one age twenty and the other twenty-four, lost their lives because they were allowed access to things that most college kids don’t get; the vehicle that crashed was “leased by the athletic department for use during recruiting activities only, and personal use was strictly prohibited,” according to a January statement from the University of Georgia athletic association. So yes, obviously they were using it for a purpose outside of its intended use, but the point remains that they did have access to it.

I am not trying to argue that every student-athlete would act irresponsibly if given money for their sports participation, but it also does not feel like a stretch of the imagination to say that a good amount would. So this comes down to what we want to value as a society. I feel like the adults in the room (yes, I know many of you will scoff at me referring to the NCAA as the adults) need to step up and do a better job protecting the student-athletes they utilize to create a billion-dollar industry. We all need to remember they are students and there is a reason that word comes first in “student-athlete”; they still have a lot to learn. The NCAA, the universities, and the other companies with invested interests all need to remember that these young men and women are supposed to be in school for the purpose of preparing themselves for their post-college life, whether that be as a professional athlete or not. They do not need to be furnished with heaps of money and expensive cars. The ones who have the athletic skills to make it to the pros - the ones who generally are now getting the most in NIL payments - will attain that in due time. For the ones who won’t go pro as an athlete, the gift of a free college education should be a more than adequate consolation prize. But what is not acceptable, what is irresponsible and borderline abusive, is thrusting these fortunate few into a world of fame and fortune that they are not prepared for. It won’t always end up as bad as what happened to a few members of Georgia’s football program. But even if it only leads to a less severe incident, it still was unnecessary and preventable.

For decades, collegiate athletes were only compensated through their scholarships (in theory). In this writer’s opinion, the system was working just fine. Now, in the short time that NIL has been permitted, we have seen it not only have a major impact on roster continuity from year to year (a negative in my mind but not the point of this article), but it also has shown the ability to lead our student-athletes into poor decisions and behaviors. While we are still in the infancy of this new NIL era, if it is allowed to continue as seemingly unregulated as it currently is, it feels like a safe prediction that more and more money will enter the equation. And this just makes me think that that could lead to more and more examples of players making questionable decisions, acting in irresponsible ways, and resulting in negative consequences of various degrees to themselves and those around them. I think the safest way to prevent these scenarios is to reduce the opportunities college athletes have to put themselves in bad situations. And not handing bags of cash to a college kid is a great way of doing that. We need those who are in a position to do something about this to show they are capable of making the right decisions. This is a case where the older generation needs to demonstrate that they know what is best for the younger population, and they need to act accordingly.