Congress NIL witness Walker Jones: 'All these doomsday predictions, we're just not seeing'

On3 imageby:Pete Nakos10/19/23


Andy Staples' Week 8 Picks: Ole Miss @ Auburn | 10.18.23

Walker Jones wanted to set the record straight.

Testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, the executive director of Ole Miss’ NIL collective and a leader of The Collective Association made a stand.

“We are ready to work with all our colleagues up here on this panel and with the government where necessary because we’re lucky enough that we deal with the athletes every day,” he said in the final 30 minutes of the 10th legislative hearing on NIL since 2020. “We’re in the trenches with them.”

For NCAA president Charlie Baker, that came as a surprise. In a wide-ranging interview with On3, Jones said he made clear to the NCAA’s leader after the hearing wrapped that collectives stand ready to work hand-in-hand with the governing body.

Among the highlights of the conversation following his time on Capitol Hill:

+ The former Ole Miss football player does sympathize with the position the NCAA president has been put in: “I actually do sympathize with him a little bit and stand ready to work with him and whoever else is deemed to be the appropriate legislative body.”

+ Jones was disappointed revenue sharing was not a discussion point, something he mentioned in his written testimony. However, it wasn’t a surprise to him.

+ In his comments to the Senate Judiciary Committee, he said NIL collectives are not involved in recruiting. In his conversation with On3, he clarified that “we at the TCA and other collectives really don’t have the time or resources or desire to dally in recruiting.”

+ Finally, after NCAA president Charlie Baker, Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick all spent time speaking about the need to codify athletes are not employees, Jones made it clear doomsday has not arrived for college sports.

(The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and context.)

Q: What did you think of Charlie Baker coming at you multiple times? He had no problem completely calling you out.

Jones: “Well, look, here’s the deal – I kind of expected that. He and I exchanged some commentary last time we were up here. I just want to try to correct the narrative, whether it’s Charlie Baker, or whoever, that the collectives are the boogeyman and not adding any sort of structure or transparency, which is false. It wasn’t really so much about Gov. Baker, it was just the outdated lazy narrative about collectives.

“I will say that I think Gov. Baker and myself both realized we have a lot more points in common than we realized previously, in some areas. I’m happy to work with Gov. Baker and his staff on meaningful legislation and oversight. We don’t shy away from that. I told him that after the hearing. He was like, ‘It’s good to hear that you guys want rules and regulations.’ I said, ‘We’ve always said that nobody’s ever asked us.’

“I’m happy to work with Gov. Baker. I do have some sympathy for him taking over an organization that was so inept for so many years. He’s bearing the brunt for decades of ineptitude and inaction. He’s doing the best he can to try to clean up a pretty untenable situation, which is the NCAA. I do have deference for him on that.

“Again, I’m not going to stand back and let him or anybody else try to paint all our collectives as the bad guys in this when we’ve evolved into fully functioning organizations that are adding structure and some transparency to a market that doesn’t have it so. It didn’t hurt my feelings, I kind of expected it. I don’t hold any ill will towards Gov. Baker. I actually do sympathize with him a little bit and stand ready to work with him and whoever else is deemed to be the appropriate legislative body.”

Q: I thought you did a really good job of separating yourself. With seven people testifying, did you almost feel like it was too much? Did you feel like you were battling for time?

Jones: “I was telling our group afterward the most nerve-wracking thing was that clock. There are six other people up there trying to get a rebuttal in or a comment in, and also answer a direct question. And that clock is ticking the whole time. You want to be respectful of the five-minute time window, you want to try to answer the direct questions from the senators.

“But you also want to take your opportunity to tap the microphone to maybe respond directly or indirectly to other comments that were made. That was probably the most challenging thing for me, to get a lot out in a short period of time, both in answering the direct question, but also responding to previous comments that I felt were unwarranted. It was a challenge, for sure.”

Q: Reading through the written testimony, you were one of the few who brought up revenue sharing and a revenue-sharing model. Were you disappointed that was not brought up and wasn’t a discussion point?

Jones: “I was. But I wasn’t overly surprised that revenue share wouldn’t come up. Because again, just due to the makeup of the panel and also to Senate Judiciary oversight, it probably wasn’t the right place. That’s probably a better conversation for the Commerce Committee. I kind of hoped it would come up, because again, I think that revenue can be the carrot to lead to a little more organization, like we’ve always said. But you know, I wasn’t overly surprised it didn’t come up. But I wish it had to some degree.”

Q: Did you feel like you connected with any of the Senators? Did any questions really pop out to you or specific conversations?

Jones: “Well, Cory Booker obviously has a passion for this legislation, which I respect being a former collegiate athlete. He’s got deep personal feelings and ties and as he said, because of his playing career, it’s helped lead him to have a great career in the United States Senate. So I have a ton of respect for Sen. Booker.

“I thought Mike Lee asked a couple of good questions. Marsha Blackburn was really interested. I appreciate her question, which gave me the ability to talk about the evolution of collectives and what we’re doing, which I think [Big Ten] commissioner [Tony] Petitti and Gov. Baker, some of those were relying on an outdated perception of collectives from 12 months ago. Her question gave me the ability to say, ‘Look, we’ve evolved. Collectives may have been created 12 months ago just to write a check. But that’s not what the majority of what we are now.'”

Q: During your testimony, you mentioned that collectives are not involved in recruiting anymore. What leads you to believe that?

Jones: “We don’t want to be involved in recruitment. Collectives, whatever reason they were formed 12 to 18 months ago, I can’t really speak to that. I can just tell you now that we at the TCA and other collectives really don’t have the time or resources or desire to dally in recruiting. Are there collectives out there in recruiting? Of course, there are. Is there some element of pay-to-play? Of course, there is. But there’s always been some element of pay-to-play, it just wasn’t called NIL. That wasn’t brought about by NIL or collectives. We’re at least now adding some sort of structure and model to that to that system.

“We want to leave that to the coaches and their recruiting budgets and their staff to do those things. Look, should the efficiency and the success of the collective be another recruiting point for our coaches, sure. They should be able to refer to the collective as being really efficient, really well-run and very impactful. I think there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as they don’t get into the specific recruiting piece, which I think was a problem a year ago but it’s become less and less. The transfer portal is not the pot of gold that everybody thought it was.”

Q: Lindsey Graham described college sports as “chaos.” Do you agree with that sentiment and what was your reaction to his remarks?

Jones: “As he said when he started, he has a lot going on right now outside of NIL, with all the roles he plays in Congress with what’s going on in the Middle East and other things. He seemed like he was somewhat agitated, which we all could understand and respect. He was pretty direct and to the point, which when you’re on a five-minute clock is actually refreshing when you get a direct question. I thought Sen. Kennedy, because the revenue has changed hands is the world going to tip off its axis was kind of amusing as well.”

Q: You were really passionate about standing up for collectives, especially when Charlie Baker took aim at Title IX concerns. Do you feel like most of your naysayers today just were not educated about collectives?

Jones: “Yeah. That’s what I probably took the most offense to was some of the commentary from Gov. Baker. I was trying to paint the picture that we are seeing trends of money starting to flow to female athletes, non-revenue athletes. We’re seeing that on the ground. The numbers speak to that. Again, I think a lot of people hang their hat on Title IX and the inequities. But, look, my point was, is it perfect and optimal where it is now? Of course not. But is it moving in the right direction? Absolutely.

“We’re seeing some degree of self-regulation on the bigger sports and revenue sports. We’re seeing robust growth in the non-revenue and female sports. That’s what the data says on our roster at Ole Miss – it’s tripled with female participation. Our first team-wide deal we ever did was with our women’s basketball team. That’s anecdotal at Ole Miss, but it’s also a trend we’re seeing across the TCA and the other collectives. I just felt like they went in there – it’s a trendy thing to say about Title IX and female athletes. It’s a trendy, headline-catching statement. But it’s not really baked in fact. Because we’re seeing the trend move in the other direction.”

Q: I know The Collective Association is not exactly waging the employee battle. But obviously, it’s something the NCAA feels really passionate about. Do you maybe their opinions were in the wrong place, in terms of we’re only a few years into this era of college sports? Was it overemphasized, fighting the employee battle?

Jones: “I made the comment midway through testimony, ‘Hey, look, let’s keep in mind we’re just into Year 3 of this model.’ So when we make blanket statements about the end of college athletics, or this is going to destroy this? We need to probably take a pause and let some historical context help us form those opinions. And just like any free market model, does it have growing pains right now? Of course, it does. But it is evolving, and we’re seeing some level of self-regulation.

“I just think it’s too soon to start painting the doomsday picture. If you remember two, or three years ago, those same people were the ones that told us if NIL gets past, it will destroy college athletics. Well, here we are. Three years later, viewership is through the roof. In March Madness last year, college football this year. We’re seeing a greater distribution of talent and much more parity across college football and basketball. So the overall health, like I said in my written testimony, is actually pretty good. And all these doomsday predictions, we’re just not seeing that yet.

“That’s why I would just caution all of us to take a policy here about running the epitaph of college athletics and tying it to NIL, the transfer portal or collectives. Collectives were needed because nobody else stepped up to give these athletes the ability to have structure, guidance and advice to navigate this.”

Q: Walking out of the hearing, is there even a timeline for legislation? Did you feel like you got any more details on an actual bill moving forward?

“I didn’t get any direct tangible dates or follow-ups on that. More of what I got was, ‘Hey, there needs to be some movement here.’ I think the committee was pleased to hear there were a lot more points of commonality than they probably expected for a panel that large, which should give them hope. I think the the panel showed the committee that yes, there are some differences. There is some pushback in some areas. But there’s a lot more commonality than probably what they perceive.

“Therefore, it should clear the path a little bit of where they can be prescriptive. How prescriptive is it? Is it a light touch? Is it narrow or broad? That’s where this thing is gonna get hung up a little bit. I think probably the easiest approach, and one thing we all said yes to, was some sort of national NIL standard. And again, as long as that doesn’t go too deep and it focuses on recruiting and inducements – those types of things – I think we could probably get moving along those lines. I think we’d all sign up for that.”