When it became clear in July 2021 that NIL was coming to college sports, questions immediately emerged on how it would impact locker room chemistry.
High-profile football figures like Alabama legend Nick Saban and Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin worried out loud that a landscape that features high-profile recruits, transfers, or even players buried on the depth chart making more money through NIL deals than established stars could destroy a locker room. Even former basketball coach and ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla warned talented teams will “crack” because of NIL.
“There are all kinds of issues that are coming,” Kiffin told Sports Illustrated in May 2022.
Yet one of the most extensive research studies of NIL since it was launched more than 18 months ago appears to tell a different story.
A survey of more than 1,000 student-athletes – including more than 415 Division I football players – found that only 8% of respondents have witnessed NIL causing rifts/tensions or say that it’s a “locker room problem.”
In addition, the survey found that 76% of respondents said they share NIL earnings information with teammates. Furthermore, 78% of those surveyed said teammates have asked them to share information about their NIL earnings.
The survey was conducted by Bill Carter of Student-Athlete Insights, a company that specializes in NIL education and consulting. Carter, who also lectures about NIL at the University of Vermont, is an expert on sports entrepreneurship. His NIL Research Poll is one of the most robust in the industry with a panel of around 5,000 student-athletes.
Locker room trouble a key argument against NIL
Bill Carter, a former college lacrosse coach and a 2001 SportsBusiness Journal Forty Under 40 selection, is confident his survey is painting an accurate picture of how NIL is impacting team dynamics.
“The potential for locker room strife was a foundational element of the NCAA’s argument against NIL for what felt like 100 years,” Carter told On3. “It was a foundational element of the National Federation of State High School Associations’ argument against NIL. The day after the NCAA said ‘We’re allowing NIL,’ the high school federation came out and said, ‘We’re never going to do this,’ and ‘The reason is X, Y and Z,’ and X was locker room strife.
“So, when I saw the number 8%, I don’t know if there is a difference between zero and 10%. To me, it just feels like it’s a rarity. Not that it can’t happen. Not that there can’t be a kid, who is, frankly, a jerk about it. But it just doesn’t sound like it’s really happening that much. It doesn’t sound like a problem to me.”
Carter’s survey probed other NIL talking points, such as the Transfer Portal and how coaches participate in NIL. But Carter said he believes the poll results about NIL’s impact on locker room chemistry are extremely truthful.
“Of the things on this survey, this is one of the things that I feel most confident about,” Carter told On3. “When it’s this lopsided and the question is very clear, I just don’t think there could be an error to this number. I don’t think that this number is really 30%.”
Many coaches, players agree with survey results
On3 conducted numerous follow-up interviews with players and coaches across the country after Student-Athlete Insights shared the results of its survey.
The overarching theme was that the results were correct. Most coaches and players On3 talked with said they haven’t seen NIL create issues inside locker rooms. In fact, only one Power 5 staff indicated to On3 that NIL generated “big problems“ within its program.
“I think kids are different,” TCU football coach Sonny Dykes told On3. “I think that as coaches sometimes we think about our experience as players, or our experience when we coached games 10-15 years ago, and these kids are different. A lot of these kids have gone to multiple high schools. A lot of these kids play on seven-on-seven teams and multiple seven-on-seven teams. So, they’re used to having new players and players that have moved around and new additions to the program. It just seems like guys are much more comfortable doing that these days.
“And I think there’s that kind of prevailing mentality now. ‘Look, if he gets his, that’s got nothing to do with me.’ You know what I mean? I think there’s that mentality with young people now. And I think as adults, sometimes we have a hard time dealing with it much more than young people do. And so, it seems to have not been the problem that I thought it would be now.
“Maybe it has been in some other programs. I don’t know. I can only speak for ours but NIL certainly hadn’t been an issue.”
Dykes’ thoughts are similar to what assistants from each of the Power 5 conferences told On3. It’s also parallel to what is taking place at the FCS level, Eastern Kentucky coach Walt Wells said.
“I have not had one player come to me and say, ‘Hey, why is he getting that and I’m getting this,” Wells told On3. “I tell our guys, ‘If you put your business out there, then the problems that come may create less business for you.’”
NIL is ‘not destroying a locker room’
Grant Frerking, a former Tennessee wide receiver who recently was hired as Director of On3’s Athlete Network, has seen firsthand how student-athletes in major college football programs interact with NIL.
With the successful 2022 season for the Volunteers and the accomplishments of Spyre Sports Group, Knoxville has been the center of some of the most impactful – and lucrative – NIL developments over the past 18 months. Yet, Frerking said he’s unable to think of any instances of strife created by NIL inside the Volunteers’ locker room.
“One thing I know for sure, it’s not destroying a locker room at all,” Frerking said. “If there’s a guy that’s producing, you as a player expect that guy to get taken care of. If you’re anyone with a brain on the team, you’re going to know the guys that are producing, making plays and helping you win ball games, are the guys that are going to be making the most money.”
But what happens if a guy deep on the depth chart is making more than an all-league performer?
“If it’s such comedy that a guy is making however much money and he doesn’t touch the field, he’s a horrible teammate, or he has no ability, usually guys aren’t getting too upset unless that directly starts affecting them,” Frerking said. “I think there are some isolated cases of guys that have a similar ability that got taken care of for whatever reason. Maybe they laid out a family story and got some more money. Guys will get pissed off about that. But I don’t think it’s ever gotten to the point – from talking to other athletes at schools all over – where it’s caused conflict throughout the year that’s turned into something.
“I’m a big supporter of shooting down the whole ‘NIL is tearing down the locker room and it’s horrible for college sports’ argument. We’re coming up on two years of it and have played two football seasons with some of the most aggressive headlines against NIL out there. But we’ve yet to see anybody speak out with real examples of it tearing teams apart. I’ve been in the locker room and haven’t seen any problems with it myself.”
Critics still worry about impact on chemistry
Even with the Student-Athlete Insights results and feedback from coaches and players, there are still some bothered by the potential for locker room problems created by NIL.
Earlier this month, Hawthorne (Florida) High coach Cornelius Ingram, who played for the Florida Gators, told Main Street Daily News that he’s concerned that NIL could create situations where teammates aren’t supportive of each other.
“All of the players aren’t getting the same amount of money, so some guys might get upset,” Ingram told the publication. “And if they’re upset, ‘Well, I might not block for him,’ or, ‘I might not do my job to the best of my ability because I’m not getting a six-figure deal as the quarterback or the running back.’”
A Big 12 football assistant said he also worries about NIL poisoning the locker room environment.
“It not been an issue to this point, but it just takes one player, one situation, one instance to make this a completely different story,” the coach that asked not to be identified told On3. “Worrying about things like this is what keeps us coaches up at night. And it’s not going to go away until there’s some sort of NIL reform and everybody is guaranteed a piece of the NIL pie.”
2023 a key year for NIL’s impact on chemistry
But, again, to this point, the people most impacted by NIL say it hasn’t been the big, bad locker room-destroying boogeyman many thought it would be when it was introduced 18 months ago.
“I think this upcoming year will be the real gauge on whether or not it’ll create lasting problems in the locker room,” said a MAC football assistant who’s worked previously in two major conferences and in the NFL.
“It’ll be the first freshman class that was recruited full of NIL promises and most of the guys on the team are seeing real money through deals with collectives. But if what we’ve seen so far is any indication, then I think it’s safe to say, generally, that NIL isn’t more of a distraction than what you typically have to deal with in a college program.”