Nebraska Football Players Walk to the Stadium for Game Against Purdue
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Padding the Stats: NIL, Transfer Portal and the Future of College Sports

May 18, 2022

We’ve entered a crazy new age of college athletics where everything’s made up and the rules don’t matter.

For years and years, the NCAA’s major sports (football and basketball) operated under the same basic rules regarding eligibility for student-athletes. Thanks to outside pressure, however, those rules have changed rapidly over the last few years.

First the transfer portal, then the one-time free transfer rule and now Name, Image and Likeness rights have shifted the balance of power back in the athletes’ direction, and at this point it’s all anyone seems to be talking about.

The conversation has now shifted to how “out of control” everything is and how the NCAA needs to make drastic changes to address this issue. From coaches and athletic directors going on the record to others speaking anonymously to fans and media, nobody seems to like what’s going on.

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey had a different take last week, one that I appreciated.

“We’ve got to stop complaining,” Brey said. “This is the world we’re in, and last time I checked, we make pretty good money. So everybody should shut up and adjust.”

ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg had a follow-up with similar thoughts.

As a response to how creative those involved have been getting under the NIL blanket, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors issued new guidance last week, targeting the involvement of boosters in recruiting efforts in particular and warning of possible rules violations enforcement and penalties.

Good luck with that.

The NCAA’s problem (and by “NCAA” I’m referring to Mark Emmert, the various leadership boards and councils and the school leaders that make up the NCAA body) is that it spent the entire time it could have used to try to set up ground rules and find an acceptable compromise fighting against the oncoming wave and doing everything it could to cling to the antiquated concept of amateurism. So the various governments and courts around the country took the matter out of the NCAA’s hands and began passing laws, leaving the NCAA no choice but to fold and let the NIL era begin.

The concept of NIL came with a general picture and vague guidelines of what it was supposed to entail, and to be fair, there’s been a whole lot of NIL operating as initially envisioned. It was not supposed to be used as a recruiting tool, but if you didn’t see that coming with the NCAA’s shaky legal ground then you were incredibly naive.

To the NCAA hoping to issue penalties and keep boosters and “collectives” out of recruiting, I once again say good luck with that. The billionaires throwing around money have better lawyers and more legal ground to stand on than the NCAA. I’m willing to bet that many of those that have taken advantage of NIL to promise deals to recruits were smart enough to operate in such a way that the NCAA would have a hard time finding something they could punish without being taken to court (where they’d likely lose).

Yes, NIL is being used as a recruiting tool. But boosters paying players isn’t anything new. It’s been happening for a long time. Now it’s just out in the open, and frankly, that doesn’t bother me much at all.

The fear mongering going on is pretty predictable, but the worst case scenario many probably fear isn’t the most likely outcome. There are the same number of roster spots and the same number of student-athletes to go around as there were before (actually, there are even more athletes until we make it through the COVID-19 extra eligibility cycle, another variable complicating things).

Any one program can only horde so much talent; a high 4-star quarterback isn’t going to sign up to be eighth quarterback at Alabama, and if he does, it’s more likely than not he’ll hit the market again as a transfer. A lot of players will choose their school based on economic opportunities, but the thought that the richest programs will just buy every good player is nonsense. I know an example of a high profile student-athlete during this cycle who turned down the promise of more money at one school to commit to another based on fit. Traditional recruiting — building real connections while selling a scheme, culture, geographical or other fit — still exists, just with added variables.

Last week, Iowa athletic director Gary Barta suggested the NCAA walk back the one-time transfer rule while NIL exists as a way to curb poaching. To be clear, I think it’s pretty lame if you’re a coach who actively tries to commit a student-athlete at another program to enter the transfer portal. But Barta probably shouldn’t have explained it the way he did.

“If you transfer, you can transfer. You don’t lose your scholarship. But you must sit out a year, because we can control that,” Barta said. “And that, I think, would slow down the name, image and likeness deals because a booster isn’t going to offer a student-athlete a big sum of money if they know, if they come into their university, they have to sit out a year. But at the same time, once the student’s there, you can put together, they can put together, a name, image and likeness package that they benefit from.”

I thought administrators would have realized talking about “control” and preventing student-athletes from making money wasn’t going to be popular in the current environment, but I guess old habits die hard. While I think poaching is lame, I’m not going to ever begrudge a student-athlete improving his situation if the opportunity presents itself.

The truth is the coaches determine a prospective student-athlete’s opportunities. A recruit can’t go to a school that doesn’t offer, and there are plenty of athletes that get overlooked. Why should a high-major talent who tears it up at a mid-major level be penalized for high-major coaches getting it wrong during that athlete’s recruitment?

While most of the talk is doom and gloom and the inevitable end of the collegiate sports model as we know it, the newly retired Jay Wright had a much more optimistic view.

“The big picture is the NCAA didn’t get out in front of it,” Wright said. “Now, everyone’s stuck being reactionary, which is not a good position to be in at all. That’s going to take some time and it’ll be crazy for a little while, we’ll need some guard rails to go up. It’s (recruiting) just going to have to be done differently…

“I think we are gonna go through a couple of years where it feels crazy because of the combination of NIL and the transfer portal. It’s gonna stay crazy compared to what they were. But I think we’re going to see some benefits to all of that. We’re seeing all these guys staying in college now. You’ve got four things as a player: make money, mature as a person, mature as a player and get an education. There’s positive sides.”

The consensus national player of the year, Oscar Tshiebwe, is returning to Kentucky for another year rather than seeking professional opportunities, and it’s because of NIL. Oh, and he used his free transfer to move from West Virginia to Kentucky which in turn led to him becoming the national player of the year.

Does the NCAA need to tinker with things as we move forward? That’s probably worth looking into. But this new age is in its infancy. Student-athletes, coaches, agents and those footing the bill for NIL deals are all figuring it out as they go and pushing the limits more and more. But there’s a world where all of the craziness dies down as coaches, players and boosters adjust to the new landscape and as we see the results of these first few rounds of free transfers and NIL deals. 

I’m not convinced student-athlete empowerment is some great evil that must be immediately rectified with significant rules changes (nor do I believe the NCAA would be able to do so at this point without significant backlash, both on the PR front and from a legal standpoint). Let’s just see how it all plays out and go from there once we have a better idea of where the collegiate sports model should be heading.

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