Rick’s Sports Corner: NIL: Good Or Bad?

It's better late than never, but it's time that college athletes get paid for their services.

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By Rick Assad

Rutgers and Princeton played college football’s first-ever game in 1876. Two decades later Iowa faced the University of Chicago in college basketball’s initial match.

No one who participated in or who watched those games could have known just how integral those two sports would be to the fabric of collegiate life.

And surely, they would be flabbergasted to know how much money each sport generates for their university.

Football powers Alabama, Notre Dame, USC, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan and LSU are all national brands with enormous stadiums that are filled with spectators and each school can earn more than $100 million in revenue yearly.

UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Indiana, Kansas and UConn are basketball programs known far and wide and also see their arenas dotted with fans on a regular basis.

College basketball generates roughly $1 billion in annual revenue, with about $820 million coming from the Division I men’s championship, known as “March Madness,” largely through television and marketing rights.

Until recently, the athletes who played sports were not paid for their services.

High school athletes are now able to get compensated for their services. (Photo by Austin Gebhardt)

This changed when former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who won a college championship in 1995, sued the NCAA and set in motion a July 2021 decision by the NCAA that said athletes can now be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness.

It’s not just football and basketball players who are cashing in.

LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne is in high demand by suitors based on her talent, attractive looks and social media followers, which range from five to seven million, depending on the platform.

Dunne, a 20-year-old New Jersey native has signed deals with WME [William Morris Entertainment] Sports and Vuori, an activewear company.

Bronny James, a combination guard at national power Sierra Canyon High in Chatsworth and LeBron’s oldest son, recently inked a deal with Nike and a few days later signed with Beats by Dr. Dre.

Longtime sportswriter Rick Telander was a high school football, basketball and track athlete at Richwoods in Peoria, Illinois, and later played football at Northwestern and was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the eighth round of the 1971 draft.

Telander, who spent 23 years writing for Sports Illustrated and has been a sports columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times since 1995, is all for athletes being compensated.

Telander’s 1989 book, “The Hundred Yard Lie: The Corruption Of College Football And What We Can Do To Stop It,” talked about the unfairness of the NCAA and how it treats its athletes.

“It’s good because they are doing work and should get paid, like all workers,” he said.

While some have said that NIL is a bad idea like Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney, who won national championships for the Tigers in 2016 and 2018 and makes $11.5 million yearly, Telander, who penned the classic basketball book, “Heaven Is A Playground,” disagrees.

“NILs won’t ruin anything. They’ll just make the elite levels of all sports more pressure-packed and honest and capitalistic,” he pointed out. “High schools will adapt. And so will all fans.”

Sid Cooke is the Burbank boys’ hoops coach, and before that was at Renaissance Academy where his teams won two CIF Southern Section titles and a pair of Southern California State Regional championships.

“I’m all for a high school kid getting money to help themselves and their families. You can’t blame them for that, but you have to look at the affect it will have on the programs’ opponents, especially in league play and the CIF playoffs,” he said.

Burbank and Burroughs meet on the hardwood. Recently, Bronny James, who plays for national power Sierra Canyon, and is LeBron’s oldest son, recently signed with Nike and Beats by Dr. Dre. (Photo by Austin Gebhardt)

Cooke, whose teams made six CIF finals appearances and recently led the Bulldogs to the Division III AA semifinals and Division III state playoffs, said if things get out of hand, the CIF will have to step in.

“There might have to be changes, especially if programs with NIL players draw in more great talent and create too much of a gap where it’s no longer competitive,” he said. “I think paying an athlete leaves the door open.”

Alexander Wolff spent 36 years at Sports Illustrated where he covered basketball at every level.

Wolff, who retired in 2016 and now writes and edits books from a converted cow barn in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, co-captained his high school basketball team, Brighton in Rochester, New York, and then earned a history degree with honors from Princeton.

After two years at Princeton, Wolff went to Switzerland where he played on a club team for a season.

Wolff, who has written numerous books on hoops including “Raw Recruits: The High Stakes Game Colleges Play To Get Their Basketball Stars – And What It Costs To Win,” which he wrote with Armen Keteyian, “Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure,” and “The Audacity Of Hoop: Basketball And The Age Of Obama,” also weighed in on NIL.

“It’s absolutely the right thing to do, especially in light of how exploitative the O’Bannon video game likeness and the many, many names-on jerseys examples were. If you’d asked me 10 or 15 years ago, I’m not sure I would have answered the same way. The value of a simple scholarship is considerable,” he said. “But so much money is flowing into college sports right now, and it’s being used in ridiculous ways – turning assistant coaches into $1 million-a-year employees and putting deep-pile carpet in athletic directors’ offices, almost as if the powers-that-be are inventing reasons not to pay the players.”

Wolff, who edited a collection on basketball, titled, “Basketball: Great Writing About America’s Game,” and also wrote “Endpapers: A Family Story Of Books, War, Escape, And Home,” took a look at the potential problems with NIL.

“That’s my biggest concern, the implications for competitive balance. And it’s clearly the Wild West out there right now in the NIL world. The schools with the deepest-pocketed boosters have a huge advantage,” he said. “There do seem to be signs that the NCAA is trying to impose some more rules – but we know how feckless NCAA enforcement is. But to me, today, the biggest affront to decency and fairness is coaches and administrators becoming filthy rich at the expense of everyone else. They simply don’t deserve the windfalls they’re getting.”

Jesse Craven just finished his third season as the Burroughs football coach. Craven sees the pluses and minuses in NIL.

“I think it’s an incredible thing. Everyone deserves the opportunity to monetize their name, image or likeness,” he noted. “In regard to how it affects college and prep athletics, I think there needs to be more regulations around it, either in the form of something like a “salary cap” like the NFL or create “super conferences” based on the potential NIL budget for each school like the English Premier League.”

Bob Hart has been the Burbank baseball coach for more than a decade and believes NIL is just another way for the top programs to get and keep all the best talent.

“I think it turns into another recruiting mechanism for schools. And being that most of those schools don’t play by the rules, it gives them a continued advantage both in college and high school,” he stated. “If the perception is that they have and can gain access. That’s always the promise coaches make. Exposure connections and now theoretically at least money. It is a continuation of the business model that has infiltrated sports.”

Ian Thomsen covered the NBA for the Boston Globe, Sports Illustrated and NBA.com and wrote the book, “The Soul Of Basketball: The Epic Showdown Between LeBron, Kobe, Doc, And Dirk That Saved The NBA,” which came out in 2018. Thomsen also tackled the question about NIL.

“I don’t know a lot about NIL. But it seems as though for ever and ever schools and coaches have been profiting from the hard work of players without sharing revenues with those players,” he said. “And the schools still aren’t sharing their money with the players; the NIL money comes from boosters et al. But at least NIL provides some athletes with the means to earn varying levels of income by way of their efforts.”

Thomsen, who also wrote for the International Herald Tribune and The National Sports Daily, sides with the athletes.

“I know this has been disruptive to college football and basketball and other revenue-producing sports,” he offered. “But maybe if those sports’ administrators had been more equitable in sharing the money with their employees – the people who are actually responsible for creating the great interest in college sports – then maybe this disruption could have been headed off.”

Thomsen, who writes for a website that covers Northeastern in Boston, tossed another salvo.

“The bottom line is that the time is long overdue for athletes to be paid,” he said.

Indeed, for it seems after decades of getting it wrong, the NCAA, with the help of the courts, finally has it right.