Monday, May 23, 2022
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Saving College Athletics, Part 2

football on field with a pile of money

Name, Image and Likeness — NIL as it is commonly referred to in the college sports world — and it’s evil twin, the transfer portal, have become the scourge of coaches and athletic administrators everywhere.

NIL was billed as a positive mechanism for helping put money in student-athletes pockets and for evening out the playing field as they watched coaches and athletic directors jump ship to other schools without penalties. It has instead become a bureaucratic quagmire that even the bravest NCAA reformer runs from and the spineless survivors in their ivory towers and hallowed halls of intercollegiate tradition simply point their arrogant fingers of blame at others instead of finding real solutions.

NIL was originally supposed to help all student-athletes. It was conceived to allow athletes to make some money and be able to move more freely, just like their coaches and athletic leaders were doing, from school to school. Seemed fair assuming some reasonable boundaries could be put into place.

So, how was NIL working out for you college sports administrative folks and athletes? Well, for a very small number of elite players (or those who have figured out the right social media algorithms) they’ve hit the mother lode. Their proverbial ship has come in. For the vast majority of athletes it’s meant nada, nothing, because NIL has so few rules and regulations that NiL may as well stand for “Nothing is Logical”

Just look at some of the recent headlines as they relate to NIL:

More Details Emerge of Jordan Addison Tampering From USC

NIL agent says Miami hoops star Isaiah Wong will enter transfer portal if NIL compensation isn’t increased

Texas RB Bijan Robinson Lands Lamborghini NIL Deal

Is this what the folks who created NIL and the Transfer Portal envisioned? Unscrupulous and unethical coaches stealing other players? Family advisors renegotiating “contract” and players representing elite brands that most college students can’t realistically relate to, perhaps ever?

So how did an initiative with such promise and good intent turn so ugly so quickly?

“Oooh, I know, I know! Pick me, pick me!!  Lack of leadership!”

Bingo! We have a winner!

Pick your cliche folks: 

“Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

“The inmates are running the asylum.”

Well lo and behold, the NCAA finally acted:

The Division I Board of Directors on Monday issued guidance to schools regarding the intersection between recruiting activities and the name, image and likeness environment.  

Board members emphasized a continued support for the ability of student-athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness. The guidance is intended to provide clarity for those engaging in a rapidly evolving NIL environment, acknowledging that the environment will continue to evolve, and ongoing attention will be needed to ensure student-athletes are able to benefit from these opportunities. 

The guidance was developed by a task force of national leaders with student-athlete opportunity at the forefront of discussions. Specifically, the guidance defines as a booster any third-party entity that promotes an athletics program, assists with recruiting or assists with providing benefits to recruits, enrolled student-athletes or their family members. The definition could include “collectives” set up to funnel name, image and likeness deals to prospective student-athletes or enrolled student-athletes who might be considering transferring. NCAA recruiting rules preclude boosters from recruiting and/or providing benefits to prospective student-athletes. 

So is it too little too late? Only time will tell. What I do believe is it’s still time to blow up the current NCAA model.

Let’s go to our our favorite investigative reporters of my youth, Woodward and Bernstein for one more cliche.

“Follow the money.”

Ah, the money. It’s all about the money. I know we aren’t supposed to say that but come on, folks. I’ve been writing this column since 2009, so we’ve gotten to know each other pretty well.

Here’s what I want to know. Who is going to do something to fix this mess we call college sports before it gets any worse?

Who will have the courage to say “enough.”

Where are the college and university presidents? 

Where are the provosts and faculty senate leaders? 

Where are the development and advancement leaders?

Where are the ethics, integrity and compliance officers raising their voices in protest of the Wild Wild West that currently exists in college sports? 

Where are the alumni and fans with common sense asking for restraint and order?

I can just picture the new college fundraiser going to see a prospective donor. “Let’s see, you want me to give another gift to my academic college. Well the athletic fundraiser wants my annual gift for the XYZ Club so I can purchase my football, basketball, volleyball, wrestling and hockey tickets, and of course premium parking for all of them, while I am paying off my football and women’s basketball endowed scholarships, my pledge to build a new facility, and now some booster group asks me to support NIL? Sure! Do you want my house and kids too? 

I have another suggestion….how about someone just says “No?”

Who is really making the money? A handful of the very best players and their “family advisors” aka “agents.” Meanwhile the pressure just keeps mounting on the young men and women to perform and they become further and further removed from any real semblance of a “student-athlete”

Suicides and mental health issues among athletes have become more prominent.

There is word in NCAA circles that Congress might even intervene. Well that gives me tremendous hope because the government never screws anything up. Congress has stepped in before to “fix” college athletics before folks, so don’t dismiss the possibility.

Look, we gave NCAA President Mark Emmert plenty of chances to get ahead of the curve and he and his posse blew it. He’s out soon and it’s time to blow up the NCAA and build a better organization with a better funding model than depending on the Men’s Division I Basketball Championship for the bulk of your operating income. 

Perhaps it’s time to rethink sports in general while there is still time.

The trickle down effect into youth sports is already being felt. You think the crazy parent that lived vicariously through their kid was bad before, think again now that NIL is here.  In the immortal words of legendary ABC college football announcer Keith Jackson, “Whoa, Nelly.” You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Picture the scene in every middle school gym and football field. “Coach, my kid needs to play more and you need to play the ABC system that benefits him/her so school $$$ will not only offer him/her a full scholarship but will maximize his NIL deals.”

The really good coaches will quit. The really good officials will say “You don’t pay me enough to put up with this abuse from these crazy parents.”

I have little faith that anything will really change for the better anytime soon. Like tort reform and term limits, the very people who have the authority to change the dynamics want to maintain the status quo. 

For the small percentage of you who are capitalizing on NIL, congratulations. Good for you. I get it. You are simply taking advantage of the current market place. That doesn’t make it right. Those of you  involved in college sports shouldn’t assume you aren’t going to lose a portion of your fan base in the process. You are slowly but surely losing me and I am as passionate as they come about college sports.

Look at some of the people who have spoken out against NIL…former Villanova basketball coach Jay Wright, MSU coach Tom Izzo, football coaches Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney, just to name a few.

This strategy of spend, spend, spend is simply folly. 

You know who the big losers are going to be if we don’t fix this insanity soon? The vast majority of kids who are going to lose their childhoods chasing a dream only an elite few will ever achieve.

The solution isn’t always to just throw more money at the problem. The cure can become worse than the ailment. 

I have proposed solutions in the past. At the core of my proposal is that each school, dependent on geography, tradition, funding, etc. would select 12 to 16 core sports that they fully fund. All other sports would compete regionally or even locally.

I worry about the negative unintended consequences on Title IX and women’s sports and Olympic sports.

I committed to be involved in the Happy Valley Adventure Bureau Sports and Entertainment Commission because I want to positively influence the future of youth and high school sports as best as I can. I want to be sure we include developing character and life skills as part of our messaging and not just winning and brand building. 

We can do better than this. I know we can. Let’s get all the really caring, courageous and bright people in the same room and let’s build a new model of youth, high school, college and yes, even professional sports, that takes the emphasis off the almighty dollar. 

So I guess that was my crisis of conscience “Jerry Maguire” moment. For those of you familiar with the 1996 Tom Cruise sports agent movie, you will get the reference to when he has a moment of clarity and writes a strategic plan for a kinder and gentler agency. Then promptly gets fired.

Am I a being a hypocrite? No, the fact that I have spent my entire career around youth, amateur, high school, college and professional sports actually makes me uniquely qualified to assess and critique the current situation in sports on many levels. I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly and I know how the sausage is made. Despite that insider knowledge, I still have a passion for sports, all kinds of sports at all levels, professional and amateur. 

Because I have been behind the curtain I know that there is much that is good about the sports world. But unfortunately much has also broken my heart and fallen way short of my expectations. Perhaps we all could do more.

It seems to me that there are two distinct differences in philosophies with NIL. One is all about money. One is focused more on the total student-athlete experience. Guess which one I support? 

Here at Penn State, with a new President and a new AD, maybe, just maybe, we have a chance to be that school that leads, that has the courage to just say “no, we are going to do it the Penn State Way.” 

The Grand Experiment – Part II perhaps?

Just like Tom Cruise’s character, I dream of a college athletic world where a more pragmatic approach to administration and operations can coincide with the energy and passion so many of us share for sport.