Thoughts on the future of work, from the people and teams creating it.
Student-Athletes have been profiting off their Name, Image, and Likeness as long as College Athletics has been around. The significant change to college sports on July 1, 2021, was that the NCAA would not punish those athletes for doing so. Many people who objected the most to the change in NCAA policy were the same people compensating athletes with no concern for their eligibility or future.
One of the founding principles of the NCAA was amateurism, and athletes could not profit off their participation in sports. While this was a noble cause and had its place in the beginnings of the NCAA, it quickly became outdated and unrealistic. However, the NCAA held onto this principle dearly and refused to consider a change.
Looking through the history of College athletics, it's easy to see that Student Athletes have been compensated for their athletic ability beyond simple tuition, room, and board for years. Sometimes those Student-Athletes felt the wrath of the NCAA, and sometimes their actions met with little to no resistance from the National Office.
A quick trip back to the '80s shines a bright light on everything that had been known throughout the history of college sports. Long rumored payoffs to High School recruits were becoming more prominent and bolder, with schools not traditionally participating in these activities jumping in with both feet. Enter the SMU Mustangs with lofty goals and a donor base with deep pockets. The bidding war for running back Eric Dickerson was heating up and getting expensive. His unusual choice of SMU was made more apparent when he showed up on campus in the brand new Trans Am. The recruiting inducements got so out of control that ESPN did a 30 for 30 documentary on them years later, further showing the extent that paying for players went. The players and coaches moved on from SMU before the NCAA could do anything to them, leaving the school to take the brunt of the punishment as a result of their blatant cheating and as a warning to every other school in the nation. SMU received the "Death Penalty" from the NCAA, forcing them to shut down their football program for the 1987 season and other penalties. With SMU receiving the Death Penalty, recruiting inducements slowed as other schools feared a similar punishment if caught. A National Powerhouse of a program was no more, and SMU has never returned to previous levels of success. It took decades for them to be simply relevant again.
Then in 1992, the Olympics, the other great sports organization founded on and committed to amateurism, began to bend, and this was no half measure. No, the International Olympic Committee decided to let NBA players, the definition of professionals, participate in the Olympics. This led to the formation of the Dream Team, probably the greatest sports team ever assembled and a dominant Olympic performance.
Still, the NCAA did nothing.
College sports went on business as usual, gathering more and more success. Cheating ramped up again, with some getting away with it and others not so lucky, mainly the rich getting richer and the poor paying the price. The great College Basketball Coach Jerry Tarkanian summed it perfectly: "The NCAA was so mad at Kentucky they gave Cleveland State two more years of probation."
The tide began to turn in recent years, with the NCAA and its schools receiving billions of dollars in TV contracts for broadcasting its Basketball tournament and Football games, coaches receiving multi-million dollar contracts, and shoe companies giving schools millions. So student athletes wore their logos, video games produced with everything but the players' names, and still, the student-athletes received nothing more than tuition, room, and board.
If anything, the Student-Athletes began to feel the wrath of the NCAA for all their troubles. In 2013 reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, then playing for Texas A&M, was suspended for half a game for potentially signing autographs for money. However, no evidence was found to confirm such allegations. In 2014 Georgia Running Back Todd Gurley was suspended indefinitely for receiving payment for signing autographs; that penalty was then trimmed to a four-game suspension. These decisions came after lengthy investigations and had the potential to take more than just playing time from the student-athletes as it could have affected their professional opportunities.
These cases, along with increased public pressure and ongoing legal battles, led the NCAA to begin the process of changing its bylaws regarding Name, Image, and Likeness. Alston V. NCAA was one of the many straws that broke the camel's back, and the interesting thing is Alston wasn't even about NIL. The main issue at the center of the Alston case was whether the NCAA could limit academic payments to student-athletes. The 9th circuit Court of Appeals said schools could pay student-athletes for academic achievements up to $5,980. It was not exactly a crushing blow for the NCAA, but they decided this was the hill to die on and appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court had all sorts of questions for the NCAA and focused on whether it was a monopoly or not and a wide range of Student rights issues. In the end, the Court ruled 9-0 against the NCAA and allowed the academic payments ruling to stand. However, the writing was literally on the wall in the decisions, with Justices calling out the NCAA and questioning whether there would be such a narrow decision in future cases.
As is the case with large beuractrices, the process was anything but simple. A committee was formed to study the issue and make recommendations. Still, as the committee plodded along for almost two years, State Legislatures took up the case. They began passing laws forbidding the NCAA from punishing student-athletes for profiting off their Name, Image, and Likeness. The NCAA's hand was forced, but they could not make a simple decision as usual. Instead, they adopted its Interim Policy on NIL, allowing student-athletes to profit off their Name, Image, and Likeness. But only on an interim basis as they studied the issue further as if they can reverse course now.
There was lots of yelling, screaming, contemplation and questioning during the years leading up to July 1, mostly saying this policy was long overdue. Still, some thought it would end College Sports and possibly society itself. So where are we one year later? Well, the world is still spinning, college sports are still thriving, and yes, Student Athletes have been paid because they play college sports.
The apparent winners in the past year have been the Student-Athletes, who can finally profit off their Name, Image, or Likeness like the rest of the world. There are huge deals for big-name athletes, including free use of Bentleys, Lamborghinis, BMWs, etc., or six-figure payouts for tweeting about a business. However, most NIL deals are between $500 and $1,000, allowing the "rank and file" student-athletes to take advantage of the interim NIL policy. There have also been highly creative NIL deals crafted, Offensive Linemen receiving free meals at BBQ restaurants in exchange for promoting them is an arrangement I wish was available when I was in the trenches. Most college students work part-time while in school to have extra spending money in their pockets, and now Student-Athletes can do the same. Remember, back to being in college, who wouldn't want an extra couple hundred dollars in their bank account for a Friday night out or a Spring Break trip. Again, it's not just football and basketball players benefiting from NIL. Student-Athletes participating in the Olympic Sports and female Student-Athletes have some of the best NIL deals. Here at Draftly, our Kianna Smith NFT was one of our year's best sellers.
NIL Collectives have formed, allowing alumni, boosters, and fans to collaborate to facilitate and support NIL deals for Student Athletes at their schools. Again, there was much hand wringing at this development with vows for NCAA investigations, but those have subsided, and Collectives are now part of the college sports landscape. Collectives allow people to be involved in Athletics Departments in ways they've never dreamed possible. When you were in school, did you receive assistance from anyone, maybe a mentor or a scholarship from some organization? In many ways, that's what Collectives are doing, granted on a much larger scale. If that is what people want to do with their time and money, then so be it. New collectives are being formed virtually every day, and most Power 5 schools have multiple collectives to support them. These Collectives can start with millions in their pockets and only grow from there. Some estimates have collective raising and spending hundreds of millions a year on college athletics.
Collectives have also allowed the average college sports fan to have an increased role in supporting their teams. Forever fans went to games, bought the gear, and followed the teams on social media but couldn't substantially contribute to the program's growth. That was left to big money boosters who could swoop in, write an extensive check, and a new gym would appear or begin stadium upgrades. Now fans are banding together and using technology to throw their weight around. No longer banished to the upper decks, fans have formed collectives themselves, raising money in a variety of ways and using it as the fans see fit.
Fans do this by utilizing Web3 technology and forming communities to support their teams. These communities typically raise money through NFT sales, giving buyers access to the community for a specific time. Once in the community, fans can attend in-person and virtual events, vote on proposals for how the community will operate, including how funds will be spent, and interact with other community members. These communities are the future of college sports fandom and give the average fan an increased say in how their teams are supported.
I would argue that the NCAA and College Sports are much stronger in the year after NIL became a reality. Student-Athletes are choosing school versus the pro leagues for the first time in years because their NIL value could be more excellent there. More experienced athletes participating in college sports leads to better games, more parity, and better experiences for the fans and, thus, more significant revenue for the schools. There is also the open secret that many of these NIL deals are the old recruiting inducements and under-the-table money paid by boosters to athletes being brought into the light of day. This eliminates the need for investigations into such issues and, in theory, could lead to the NCAA focusing on more critical issues.
Has the last year been perfect? Far from it. Are there still many issues in the NIL space that need to be worked out, of course. However, college sports are here to stay and can grow to levels unthought of just a year ago if everyone keeps pulling in the same direction and making good decisions for everyone involved.
Conferences have taken up realignment talk again, and the formation of Super Conferences seems to be closer than ever. These conferences would be for the top-tier programs, those willing to invest significant money and resources into their programs to compete at the highest level, leaving the rest of the schools behind. These Super Conferences could demand a significant increase in television rights contracts and form an extremely valuable Football Playoff.
There is growing momentum for Student-Athletes to unionize and approach the bargaining table with schools to ask for a piece of the pie. While this is probably years away and contains many risks for the athletes, it is still an exciting advancement for Student Athletes' rights. Student-Athletes at those schools should benefit from their participation beyond better facilities, exposure, resources, etc. There is a genuine chance that Student-Athletes can profit directly off these contracts and expansion for the first time.
Schools in states with NIL laws are now realizing that those laws may be an obstacle in providing benefits to student-athletes that are allowed in states with no laws. These schools are now preparing to lobby their state legislatures to amend or repeal their laws to level the playing field. It's an interesting change from past precedents when schools were staunchly against such laws.
The Federal Government has also noticed multiple bills regarding the NCAA and Student Athletes' NIL rights making their way through Congress. These laws create a uniform law that all schools would abide by and ensure the NCAA never stepped in to take away Student Athlete's abilities to profit off their Name, Image, and Likeness.
Nobody would probably predict we'd be where we were today a few short years ago, so predicting the future of College Sports and NIL is futile. However, the future has never been brighter for student-athletes. They will have expanded opportunities to profit off their Name, Image, and Likeness while participating in the highest levels of College Athletics. They are also finally recognizing the importance of their role in college.