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Arguments Against NIL Ring Hollow

The college sports world just got a little fairer.

On July 1, college athletes started getting compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL). This was something that has always been available to other students, but denied to athletes whose talents were generating billions of dollars for others.

Conferences, schools, commissioners, athletic directors and coaches have been making ridiculous amounts of money on the backs of student-athletes who were limited to a scholarship and “cost of attendance” pocket change.

Over the last 37 years, since a Supreme Court decision allowed conferences and schools to shop their own TV rights, college sports has become a business. A big business in which the games are inventory and the players are commodities. A business in which things like tradition, rivalries, academics, the best interests of the athletes and service to the fans have all become secondary to the pursuit of the almighty dollar and the dictates of television.

These days, Power 5 Conference Athletic Departments are multimillion dollar businesses masquerading as non-profit, education-based enterprises.

For those of us who regard this evolution as borderline obscene, there were two possible ways of dealing with it.

We might have used the pandemic—which forced significant game cancellations, budget cuts, and salary reductions—as an opportunity to reset. A chance to cut travel, recruiting expenses and salaries, freeze the facilities arms race, and restore some sanity to college football and basketball.

A chance to revert to a purer time when games were contests, not TV content, when tickets and parking and beer didn’t cost an arm and a leg, when student-athletes really represented their institution and didn’t transfer after losing their starting jobs, when fans knew when games would start, and football coaches made less than school presidents.

Unfortunately, the train has left the station. At this point, it’s impossible to put the genie back in the bottle, tear up TV and sponsorship contracts, tell coaches they’re going to take huge salary cuts, and give “student-athletes” the opportunity to take classes during afternoon practice time or morning workouts and study overseas.

Which brings us to option two, which is to admit that the game’s over, it’s a business, and give the athletes—the ones who attract the fans and the TV audiences and lay their bodies on the line every week—a piece of the action.

As of July 1, it’s finally happened, despite the usual foot-dragging and incompetence from the NCAA, which fought tooth and nail against NIL before finally backing down in the face of over 20 state laws approving it.

Even today, there are many, including some astute and longtime followers of college sports, who see NIL compensation as a dangerous move on a slippery slope that will lead to privilege, corruption and dissension.

Here are some of the arguments against NIL and one man’s rebuttal.

Only a few athletes will benefit.

Hogwash. Some marketers estimate that as many as 60% of college athletes will get NIL deals. Those estimates may be high, but there's no question it won't just affect a few superstars.

In the first few days of the NIL era alone: one sponsor is paying the entire U of Miami football team $500 per month to endorse his Mixed Martial Arts chain; Iowa point guard Jordan Bohannon has been cashing in on numerous appearances; Arkansas wide receiver Trey Knox and his dog partnered with Pet Smart; several LSU players signed a deal with Yoke Gaming that allows fans to play video games alongside them; and University of Missouri athletes got 50 different endorsements. And that's just a small sample from the first week.

Women won't get a piece of the action.

Hogwash. One of the first announced deals was a lucrative contract for Hanna and Haley Cavinder of Fresno State basketball (pictured above). Hundreds of female athletes with huge social media accounts will reap paydays, and superstar gymnasts and basketball players will do especially well.

The Cavinder twins, who will be sponsored by Boost Mobile, have more than 5 million followers across their social media platforms. LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, who has over a million followers on Instagram alone, is set to sign several deals as soon as the Louisiana governor signs the NIL bill passed by the state legislature.

Only players from the Power 5 schools will benefit.

Hogwash. See the Cavinders (above). Many small school players are celebrities in their towns and will be very attractive to local car dealers, pizza parlors and other small businesses. Other players, like Valparaiso basketball’s Thomas Kithier, will make a small fortune sending birthday greetings and shoutouts on social media.

The NCAA should manage this and establish national guidelines.

Don't hold your breath. The NCAA has punted, as usual. A national standard would be good, but it'll probably have to come from Congress. Given the partisanship in Washington, good luck with that.

There will be abuses.

Absolutely. Anytime agents are involved, abuses are inevitable. In the absence of national rules and the vagaries of different state laws, there will be some confusion. No doubt schools will promise NIL opportunities as recruiting inducements. But they already promise TV exposure, luxury locker rooms and lounges, jobs, networking with alums, a pathway to the pros, women, drugs, and God knows what else. And I maintain any abuses are not as serious as the current abuse of denying players a share of the billions they are generating.

It's important to realize that only a few athletes go on to pro stardom, so for most college athletes their "peak" earnings period is during college. A $20,000 endorsement deal may not seem like a lot, but to many athletes it could represent part of a down payment on a house or needed financial help for their family.

Athletes will become employees and have to pay taxes.

Big deal. The students who work in the bookstore or as hashers in the dorm all get W-2s and pay taxes. Certainly an athlete who can decipher a two-deep zone can figure out his tax return on Turbo Tax.

There will be jealousy and strife in the locker room when the QB reaps a fortune and O linemen get nothing.

This discrepancy already exists with respect to publicity, adoration from fans, and jersey sales in the bookstore. And it's no different than every other business in America, where the principals are paid more. It may be an issue in some locker rooms, particularly if the QB is an arrogant jerk, but most of the time the players will adapt, particularly if there are more examples like the U of Miami sponsorship for the whole team.

A few athletes could make more than their coaches.

So what. Back in the day when coaches were making $40,000 and athletes were getting a scholarship worth $6,000, things were relatively equitable. Now that coaches are making $5 million and athletes are getting a $60,000 scholarship, things needed to change.

It’s also worth mentioning that players make more than coaches in all pro sports and, let’s face it, college football and basketball are in many ways very similar to the NFL and NBA.

NIL will destroy amateurism.

Amateurism has been dead for a long time, folks. Olympians like Katie Ledecky made hundreds of thousands of dollars as an "amateur" long before she left Stanford.

In my view, most of the anti-NIL hue and cry will subside as everyone realizes that their fears are overblown. What may seem outlandish and shocking today will become routine and “old news” tomorrow.

Other than a complete reset—which isn’t going to happen—this is the best and fairest way to compensate athletes and manage a situation that has gotten completely out of hand.

Please note: The Inside Track will be on vacation next week. We’ll return July 19.


Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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