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2 years into NIL, the NCAA still is fighting the wrong battle

Ivan Maiselby:Ivan Maisel01/19/23


Armageddon arrived in college football, and we survived. Players have the freedom to move from one school to the next without having to redshirt, just like coaches. Players are getting paid while still playing on Saturdays. It’s technically not pay-for-play, but it’s still money in their pocket.

We heard for years how this would mean the end of the sport. If truth be told, I may have doom-written it a time or two.

“At Penn State, our mindset has always been we do things the right way,” university trustee Jay Paterno said. “It’s like being raised in a Catholic family and you’re told, ‘You can’t do this and you can’t do that.’ All of a sudden, the Pope goes, ‘You can do all that.’ Wait, what? (Boosters) can now have contact with players. They can make money. Our fan base was paralyzed. The education part has been really hard.”

As surely as two plus two equals third-and-6, the sport not only survived but thrived.

We are a week removed from the close of a relentlessly exciting season that included old blood (Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama) and new (TCU, Tulane) at the top, a Heisman winner who emerged from the transfer portal (Caleb Williams of USC) and nearly 75 percent of the 131 FBS teams with an increase in average attendance.

The worst has happened, and yet nothing happened. Like Y2K.

OK, maybe not nothing. Coaches are complaining about poaching. They are complaining about kids asking for money. They have a point. It will take time to figure out what the rules should be and who should make them, mostly because the NCAA refuses to. But two years into the NIL era, it’s a good time to stop and figure out what we’ve learned and how to apply it.

Pay for play? For most, it’s the other way around

Paterno was a college football assistant for more than two decades, and has been actively involved in a Penn State collective, Success With Honor, for the past two years. He is serving as a consultant to TeamAltemus, a financial literacy group that teaches college athletes how to be financially responsible.

Success With Honor has signed contracts with Penn State athletes from all 31 Nittany Lions varsity teams, including every scholarship football player. A NIL deal can make a world of difference to someone like Penn State wrestler Roman Bravo-Young, who has won two NCAA titles. Penn State has 30 wrestlers and 9.9 scholarships to spread among them. Bravo-Young is from Tucson, Ariz. Out-of-state tuition is $50,000 per year. He gets only a quarter-scholarship. That leaves him paying nearly $40,000 per year.

“They’re paying to play,” Paterno said. “It’s not the other way around. We’ve impacted them. The coaches are excited they can do something for their families and help them stay.”

Another thing that Penn State now knows: Don’t believe everything you read. Reported deals of $7 million or $8 million are reported, repeated and rarely confirmed.

“The predictions on what it would be, with unbelievable numbers and fund-raising goals – reality has set in,” said Kerry Small, the collective’s executive director.

Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, the most prominent college football player when the season began, participated in national television advertising for Dr Pepper and Nissan (this is not news to anyone who watched a single football game). Young earned about $4 million while leading Alabama to an 11-2 record. Perhaps there is a collective that spent more on a single recruit than what two major advertisers combined to spend on the reigning Heisman winner. Color me skeptical.

“The third thing we’ve seen is businesses do want a return on investment,” Paterno said. “If you have the (donor) who owns his own business who has an ego and wants to be around athletes, yeah, they’ll flip cars to kids and do things without really worrying about return on investment. But the real companies want to see a return on investment.”

Success With Honor is attempting not only to make deals but to make deals with a purpose – paid internships, fundraising, be it for national causes or a player’s pet charity. At the Rose Bowl, Penn State linked with the Mattel Foundation to stage a Mega Bloks competition (the offense and the defense built towers) to raise money and awareness for Save the Children.

Learning as we go – except for the NCAA

Penn State is learning as it goes. So is the rest of the industry – save for the NCAA, a national governing organization that refuses to govern. The NCAA concluded its annual convention last week with a NIL strategy of continuing to beg the United States Congress for relief. The NCAA wants Congress to pass a national law that would provide antitrust relief just in case NCAA rules limit what athletes earn. Two years of wheedling a Congress run by one party got the NCAA nowhere. Now that one party controls the House and another controls the Senate, it will be difficult to pass a resolution declaring that this month is January. But sure, go ahead.

The NCAA also is in federal court this week defending the concept that college athletes should not be recognized as employees. The NCAA is as serious about this being the death of college athletics as about all the other lines it drew in the sand. Rather than adapt to the new reality, the NCAA has made it clear that it will defend amateurism to the death. The way it’s going, that may happen.

This might give an idea of the length to which the NCAA is willing to abase itself. There’s a clause in the 13th Amendment – the one that outlawed slavery – that makes an exception to allow prisoners to be paid less than their worth. The NCAA has argued in Johnson v. NCAA, the case that returns to court this week, that that same clause should be used to make an exception for college athletes as amateurs.

Maybe the NCAA is making this argument because it’s more sophisticated than taping “Kick Me” signs to the back of its pants. But equating amateur athletes to prison labor may qualify for the Cynicism Hall of Fame alongside the University of North Carolina, which got out of an NCAA penalty a few years ago when it pointed out that fraudulent academic work done by athletes couldn’t be an NCAA violation because non-athletes on campus also received fake grades.

The NCAA’s definition of amateurism long ago became whatever the NCAA said it is. “Laundry money” used to be kosher … until it wasn’t. The NCAA for years declared Pell Grants and cost-of-attendance payments beyond the boundaries of civilized competition. The same went for NIL deals. Now they are all allowed.

Amateurism has become the foundation of a condemned building. The NCAA should be ashamed. In these early stages of NIL, as players have begun to make money, the passion evident in football stadiums and basketball arenas, soccer pitches and hockey rinks feels as if it has increased. The NCAA is fighting the wrong battle. Still.