Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Frost, Huskers, and Others Talk Through NIL Distractions and Pitfalls: ‘It Definitely Comes Down to Culture’

July 28, 2021

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said last week he hopes to soon see federal legislation regarding name, image, and likeness opportunities for student-athletes. 

Facing mounting pressure from states passing their own bills, the NCAA adopted temporary rule changes that opened the door for NIL activity on June 30. The clock was nearing midnight, though—the first swath of state laws went into effect on July 1—and the NCAA response was more patchwork than sound framework. Schools were to set their own policy for what should be allowed. You get an awful lot of variance from state to state. 

Warren isn’t the first to want federal oversight; the NCAA is asking for it too. In lieu of it, this NIL landscape, with nearly 30 states having their own laws in place, is very much “learn as you go.”

“Nobody a month ago really understood it,” said Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz. “We’re now starting to see it. It’s going to be a huge learning curve, I think, for everybody.”

Schools have partnered with various companies to try and help educate and guide student-athletes on the do’s and don’t’s—Nebraska is with a local-based company Opendorse. The main thing you hear from coaches is that they want their players to be protected. 

“It’s going to be one more tug on our guys for time management, energy management, and they’ve already got a lot of those anyway,” Ferentz said. 

Of the Big Ten teams we spoke to at media days last week, few had been given firm rules by their head coaches as to what could and couldn’t be done. Coaches want to remain focused on football.

“We haven’t written a bunch of rules, I just don’t want it to be a distraction,” said Husker head coach Scott Frost. “We’re trying to give guys an opportunity to have it be as organized as it can. I need to protect them as well. I’m hearing stories from other universities, particularly in another sport, where some kids are approached by agents, people trying to get them to do deals. There could be a lot of distractions, there could be a lot of people talking to our kids, so hopefully we can find a way to protect them to some degree while allowing them to take advantage of NIL.”

Coaches aren’t allowed to be involved in those deals. Frost says he doesn’t want to be. “I want to coach a team,” he said, but the opening of the NIL frontier will have potentially significant ramifications on how that’s done. 

From the coaching standpoint first, it’s a recruiting weapon to be played as often or as little as any individual chooses. 

“If they make enough or if they live in the wrong state they’re really gonna deal with that. I guess that’s a good reason not to live in California,” Ferentz said. 

Wonder if there are any California-based 2022 prospects Iowa is in a battle for?

“The other thing I told our guys was that it’s probably gonna behoove you to be on a good team and be a good player,” Ferentz continued. “That’ll probably make you more marketable.”

Which is generally true and always has been from an NFL standpoint, but particularly now when money is involved. If one school can offer more opportunities than another, it makes sense for a player to pick the one that can earn it more money. 

Convenient then, for Alabama head coach Nick Saban to drop at SEC media days recently that his second-year quarterback, Bryce Young, a player who has yet to start a game for the Tide, is approaching “almost seven-figures” in endorsement money. 

“To me, I don’t think that’s what this whole thing is supposed to be about,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said at Pac-12 media days, per CBS Sports. “I don’t believe that is true market value. I think that’s Alabama value, But that’s not market value for an individual, which is supposed to be what this is about.

“My gut reaction is on multiple levels. First of all, Nick Saban is smarter than any 10 of us in this room combined. There’s no way that was a throw-in. It’s obvious to me that Nick wanted to plant that and make sure people knew that. It’s a great way to recruit people to come to you, which the guy hasn’t started a college football game and he’s already signed a whole bunch of deals to make money.”

The coach-to-coach interplay is going to no doubt prove interesting. Some coaches will likely feel as if others are taking advantage of a system designed for something else entirely. Coaches at high-profile schools or programs with tremendous fan interest or in major markets will argue for their right to take advantage of those things.

Frost talked about recent changes as moving the game away from its purity—the athletes, alumni, the “rah rah.” 

“The game is changing,” he said. “I think in a lot of ways those are gonna be good changes, but there’s gonna be pitfalls too.”

One Husker player told me recently he hoped for some kind of central NIL strategist in place at universities to help answer any questions, direct players, and set guidelines. In a lot of ways, schools are flying by the seat of their pants with this. One issue that could loom large as the football season approaches is whether NIL opportunities become a distraction in locker rooms. 

“I think it definitely comes down to the culture,” said senior Indiana linebacker Micah McFadden. “If one guy’s too out front about it, I feel like it could create distrust throughout a team, but I feel like if everybody has their head on right and they’re approaching every opportunity with the right mindset, I think everybody will be OK with it.”

In other words, don’t be asking your teammates how much money they’re making when you’re getting suited up for a practice. 

Husker tight end Austin Allen said he’s not too big into NIL opportunities right now, with his focus on the 2021 season. But for others who are taking advantage of new opportunities, more power to them; Allen doesn’t see it becoming an issue in Nebraska’s locker room. 

Culture is a big key. If it’s strong, and if players can hold their teammates accountable to the rest of the team, players feel like it’ll be much harder for a good thing to become a bad thing. 

“I mean, it’s going to be a thing we obviously look at because who’s not intrigued by money? But it’s not going to be such a distraction that it deters us from football,” Allen said. “That’s why we’re here, that’s why we have scholarships, that’s why we love the university, that’s why we love playing in the game, it’s for football. I don’t think people are going to get too distracted. 

“I mean, if someone’s distracted by it they’re not going to be playing.”

Which is the other key piece of it. The older players in a locker room are trying to make sure everyone else understands that what you get is earned, save for maybe a few Alabama players. 

“Guys just really have to realize that if you’re not doing good things on the field, you can’t really expect good things on the NIL part of it,” said senior Wisconsin defensive back Faion Hicks. “Just constantly reminding guys that it’s bigger than social media and sponsorships and it’s all about the game, and then all that will fall into place. 

“Whatever comes my way comes my way, but I have to just be focused on the game.” 

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