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Athletes' visions for the future: 'A lot of us just want to be recognized'

On3 imageby:Andy Wittry06/08/23

AndyWittry

ATLANTA North Carolina rising senior defensive end/outside linebacker Kaimon Rucker said at the 2023 INFLCR NIL Summit that he hadn’t heard the reports regarding representatives from half of the ACC‘s 14 full-time member schools, including North Carolina, meeting earlier this year about the future of the conference.

“I’m not familiar with that,” Rucker said. “No, I’m not, sadly.”

He then added, “We don’t really talk about stuff like that, especially the higher stuff like that.”

For now, university presidents and chancellors, plus athletic directors and maybe key trustees, shape the landscape of college athletics. Recently, that includes through influencing proposed state legislation that can shape name, image and likeness regulations through friendly amendments.

Soon, the National Labor Relations Board, federal courts or Congress could supersede institutional or state legislative decisions. The athletes themselves can be lost in the equation, often limited to Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) roles.

What do current NCAA Division I athletes think the future model of college athletics should entail?

On3 spoke with 12 athletes at the INFLCR NIL Summit about their visions for the future, ranging from FBS quarterbacks to athletes who compete in acrobatics and tumbling, which is one of the NCAA emerging sports for women.

“I think more than anything, there isn’t one best model that’s gonna fit every single athlete,” said Oregon acrobatics and tumbling base Cami Wilson. “There are people that love NIL and it is a full-time job and you should be considered an employee and you should get the benefits of that. But also there are people that it’s not for them. It’s like trying to force everybody to eat the same meal.

“That’s not gonna happen.”

Athletes want recognition, compensation

Oklahoma quarterback General Booty shared some of the types of conversations that take place in the Sooners’ locker room. They include what college football players’ NIL rights might be worth for opting into EA Sports College Football and whether some players nationally would consider holding out if they don’t like the terms. They also include player compensation and benefits more generally.

“I’ll tell you personally from what I think and players in our locker room, a lot of us just want to be recognized and compensated,” Booty said. “It’s not about the money. But even if it’s small things where they build apartment complexes just for the players and maybe we do some things in the community or help them out so the price is reduced or maybe it’s doing some NIL deals with car dealerships and maybe it takes off half of your monthly note. You know, things like that you use every day. Gas, food, water.

“Those go a long way and I think people are going to start getting really creative with that, whether it be housing, transportation, food, gas, stuff that you use every day and I think that’s going to be the big thing. Yeah, money will always play a part of it but I think they’re going to start getting pretty creative and I think it’ll be pretty interesting to see what happens.”

Some developments in the last couple of years suggest college athletics is moving in this direction.

Following the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in Alston v. NCAA, many schools offer academic-related financial compensation – colloquially called Alston awards, which are capped at nearly $6,000 annually per athlete – and other academic benefits.

In April, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors adopted rules that will require more support for college athletes, including required medical coverage for athletic-related injuries for at least two years after graduation and covering out-of-pocket medical expenses during an athlete’s playing career.

Meanwhile, the 12th Man Foundation, which is an independent foundation that supports Texas A&M, announced last winter its plans for the 12th Man+ Fund. While the university and the foundation both maintain their independence, it’s arguably the NIL fundraising model that’s closest to an in-house solution among those that have been announced. The foundations at other institutions could soon pursue a similar model thanks to a recent wave of state bills that could protect those NIL activities.

‘3 to 5 years, revenue share will be the standard’

At the inaugural INFLCR NIL Summit last summer, UCLA quarterback Chase Griffin was named Male Athlete of the Year. At this year’s event, he was on stage as one of the presenters of the Female Athlete of the Year award one day, then he participated in a panel alongside former NFL quarterbacks Michael Vick and Trent Dilfer the next.

Griffin, who’s entering his fifth year of college, likely won’t be enrolled if the next significant change that he projects for player compensation comes to fruition. However, some of his new teammates might.

“I think long term and probably more short term than people think, revenue share’s gonna be the thing and NIL was really just the first domino on a number of cases that’s gonna lead to rev share,” Griffin said. “I think within the next three to five years, revenue share will be the standard in revenue-generating sports. Now, there are a lot of ways to go about that.

“I think presenting the college athlete’s side in a unified model, possibly with some sort of group licensing to capture on TV and media rights would be appropriate. But as a whole, I think the college world, the administrators of these schools, have to get systems in place so that they’re ready to provide the level of care that these athletes need through the revenue share change.”

Growing awareness by athletes of industry’s finances

Stanford cornerback Terian Williams II said he thinks the role of NIL rights and deals will increase, especially for non-football sports such as women’s basketball and gymnastics. Williams spoke strictly in terms of NIL agreements, but almost in the vein of expanded group licensing or even broadcast rights.

“Colleges bring in billions of dollars,” he said. “Billions of dollars. Whether it’s from TV programs, jersey sales, brand partnerships.”

Anecdotally, there has been a growing awareness among college athletes in recent years about the financial largesse of the industry.

“Definitely showing how much money teams are bringing in because some schools are really bringing in money, so I guess that’ll be a way to do it to get it out there like that,” said Michigan State guard Tyson Walker, when asked about the future of college athletics and theoretical revenue sharing.

Walker led Michigan State in scoring at 14.8 points last season and he earned second-team All-Big Ten honors. He said the benefits of NIL opportunities can help athletes determine whether to use their extra year of eligibility from the COVID-19 pandemic, as he chose to do.

“I think that’s definitely interesting…I mean how much revenue that we bring into schools in general,” Kansas running back Devin Neal said of potential revenue sharing. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily the best plan.”

‘They just need to be able to do what’s best for the players’

These can be lofty and at times existential questions for the industry.

“I don’t know if I’m the right guy to answer that,” said Rutgers guard Paul Mulcahy.

For now, we’re still in the NCAA’s NIL era.

Cincinnati defensive back Jordan Young quipped, “A couple of years ago if you were to accept any money from anybody you would be in big trouble, and now look at us.”

Unless or until there’s a federal law that governs NIL and other modern issues in college athletics, college athletes will still have relatively unimpeded publicity rights.

Rucker, the North Carolina edge defender, joked that “I feel like NIL is still a newborn” in terms of its lifespan.

Many athletes said they want more clarity regarding what they and their peers are allowed to do.

“I think it should really be name, image, likeness and less pay for play, if I can say that, and have student-athletes really out there in the community working, rather than just expecting a dollar amount,” Mulcahy continued. “They should work and they should want to be a part of that.”

Wilson, the Oregon acrobatics and tumbling base, used words like community, support and knowledge when describing her vision for the future.

Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels, who was a second-team All-Big 12 selection last season, said, “I feel like they just need to be able to do what’s best for the players rather than just doing what’s best for the NCAA or for any higher business.”

He said the next model of college athletics needs to prioritize athletes and their futures.

“I think more than anything, the NIL space is a gray area and I think that’s the scariest part of it is kind of tip-toeing through certain things,” Wilson said. “I think as long as we’re able to navigate and do it with the best interests of the students regardless of what they want to do. That’s the future of NIL.”

There wasn’t a consensus among athletes on a possible solution, nor any quick fixes as athlete compensation from NIL collectives serves as a bridge to whatever’s next, as INFLCR CEO Jim Cavale suggested at the event.

“I feel like we’re definitely optimizing that but it’s always going to raise a big question mark of what we can and cannot do,” Rucker said. “It’s just going to have to be an over time thing, where if we don’t have the answers, we’re going to try to find one.”