The forgotten force in the NIL boom

Over coffee recently, a friend who has University of Washington interests stopped me. We were discussing the roiling waters of college sports’ name-image-and-likeness tsunami, and he said something that never occurred to me, something that seems buried in the news of deals, cars and cash.

  He said he wasn’t sure Upper Campus – the academics that, you know, populate the place – were going to be on board with NIL.

  Oh, sure, Washington is aiming not to be left in the dust of its peers. Montlake Futures is a donor-funded independent corporation that coordinates NIL opportunities for UW athletes.

  But . . . a force to put the brakes on the madcap extravagance of NIL? What a concept.

  Here’s a refresher on some of the recent NIL-related headlines:

  • Every University of Texas offensive lineman on scholarship is going to get $50,000 annually to support charitable causes, courtesy of a nonprofit.
  • Don’t pine for the Longhorn skill-position guys; Bijan Robinson, the running back, has a reported six NIL deals, one of which provides him a new Lamborghini. (It reminds me that when I wrote “Mad Hoops,” on Oregon’s “Kamikaze Kids” of the 1970s, the future fourth pick in the 1977 draft, forward Greg Ballard, drove a beater his teammates called the “Green Latrine,” about a dozen years old and with a gaping hole in the passenger-side floor.)
  • The guy who will hand the ball off to Robinson, transfer quarterback Quinn Ewers, has been pictured showing off his new Aston-Martin.
  • Nijel Pack, a transfer from Kansas State, landed at Miami, persuaded by a two-year, $800,000 pact to endorse booster John Ruiz’ health-care companies. (Ruiz’ largesse has augured the first NIL-related visit by the NCAA to a benefactor.)
  • C.J. Stroud, Ohio State’s quarterbacking hero of the Rose Bowl, is driving an NIL-fueled Bentley. Something just doesn’t fit about a college kid driving a Bentley.
  • Stroud’s coach, Ryan Day, estimates that $13 million is needed on the NIL side to service the Ohio State roster this year.
  • The NCAA, where somebody must have shaken President Mark Emmert awake, issued guidelines in May attempting to distance boosters from coaches and staff, as well as from recruits susceptible to NIL pitches.
  • The Athletic reported that a 2023 five-star recruit has signed a deal with a school’s NIL collective that could pay him more than $8 million by the end of his junior year.
  • Alabama’s Nick Saban and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher hurled rocks at each other, Saban saying that A&M’s recruiting class was bought, Fisher returning volley by claiming that only one of the Aggies’ early-enrollees in the spring had an NIL deal.

  By coincidence, we had dinner over the weekend with a cousin passing through Seattle on his return to Toronto. His dad excelled at defensive tackle and placekicker at Ohio State in the early 1930s. My cousin noted that athletes in that era also held part-time jobs as part of their scholarship agreements.

  “What sort of name-image-and-likeness deal did he have?” I asked innocently.

  But this isn’t about yowling over the riches have that have suddenly fallen to college athletes, who have for too long been the forgotten layer in the sports ecosystem. They’re merely reaping what market forces will allow them.

  Rather, it’s about whether a respected university ought to be the vehicle for their newfound power. The University of Washington is a member of the American Association of Universities, with a distinguished medical school and a formidable reputation. Though it has a robust tradition in football, it’s less renowned in that arena than for its academics.

  It’s nothing new, the uneasy alliance of big-time college sports in the university — the football coach making millions while the chemistry prof can’t crack six figures, the “special admits” that fuel the money-producing sports, while the local kid with a 4.0 GPA can’t get enrolled.

  But this is next-level.

  The headlong rush to calibrate the value of college athletes in the NIL age is like the newly released prisoner overwhelmed by the good life in his new environs. His first meal is caviar, chateaubriand and cherries jubilee. Soon, though, sloppy joes may be the reality, and when the NIL market corrects, today’s Lamborghini may be tomorrow’s Kia.

  I’ve envisioned for a long time a day when there might be a couple of dozen schools with the biggest intentions in football – we’re looking at you, SEC – at the top level, commanding most of the TV money. And then a level down, the vast majority of what is now the Football Bowl Subdivision.

  But money talks. And as long as there are well-heeled boosters giving not only to athletics but to academics because the football team plays in a New Year’s Six game, the system endures.

  At least until somebody in a faculty senate stands up and asks: “What the hell are we doing?”