The Wild West of College Sports

It’s become a cliché by now. But just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it isn’t the most accurate description of what’s going on.

As predicted by pundits and insiders when name, image, and likeness (NIL) legislation was met with vague and cursory guidelines from the NCAA last July, the world of college athletics has been thrown into turmoil.

Couple the NIL scene with what is called the “transfer portal,” a means by which athletes can switch schools once with no sit-a-year-out penalty, and the result could indeed be called the wild, wild West of college sports.

The New, Transitory World of NIL

Last July, in the aftermath of a Supreme Court decision that NCAA rules limiting education-related compensation for athletes violated the Sherman Act (NCAA v. Alston), the NCAA, possibly seeing future legal degradation of its heretofore sacrosanct antitrust exemption, possibly wishing to slow the relentless march of a pay-for-play reality it sees coming over the hill, went into damage control mode and declared that student-athletes could make money off their name, image, and likeness (NIL).

But rather than laying down rules for NIL, the governing body threw that responsibility to the states or, if states passed no relevant legislation, to the schools themselves, and urged Congress to set down the overarching, uniform rules, which Congress — surprise! — has not gotten around to doing.

About half of the states passed rules — all different from each other — and about half did not. NCAA schools in the half that did must follow their state’s rules, but schools in the other half are constrained only by general NCAA guidelines prohibiting paying a player directly to attend or play for a school (“pay for play”), using NIL as a recruiting inducement, and other verboten practices.

A number of former starting Power Five quarterbacks are also involved in this game of musical chairs.

One Power Five athletic director, Colorado’s Rick George, criticized the NCAA for not doing its job. “To allow the NIL to get out of hand like it’s gotten is not acceptable and we as an industry have to embrace getting this back together so we have some guidelines that are consistent across our industry.” He fears that what some schools are currently doing with their NIL practices could fall under the rubric of recruiting inducements.

That, because of the many sets of rules, some schools would be able to offer recruits better NIL packages than other schools is what had the college athletic world worried sick six months ago. Everybody saw this coming!

Because schools still can’t directly broker NIL deals for athletes — that would constitute “pay for play” — those institutions wanting to remain competitive have forged agreements with outside agencies both to give interested businesses help and support in NIL matters and to match athletes with sponsors. But schools wanting to get ahead of the game have tapped their loyal, and often rabid, boosters for help.

Said Blake Lawrence, cofounder of Opendorse, a company out of Lincoln, Nebraska, that helps athletes with NIL deals: “It’s no surprise that donors around the country are figuring out how to get involved in NIL, but it is quickly turning into big business, particularly in the recruiting process.”

New just recently are “collectives” and nonprofits. Collectives are donor groups that marshal money from boosters and match jocks with NIL opportunities. Sports Business Journal tallied 17 such collectives last December, all associated with athletes at big-time schools — Florida, Auburn, Ohio State, Penn State, Washington, et al.

Maybe because they do things bigger there, collectives and nonprofits are generating a lot of noise in Texas. Clark Field Collective, independent of the University of Texas (UT), claims to have $10 million pledged from boosters for NIL deals for UT athletes. “The University of Texas at Austin maintains the largest, wealthiest alumni donor base in the entire country,” the CEO of the group, Nick Shuley, said. “It’s time a network like this existed to support our college athletes.”

How important are these collectives? Writes Michael Smith: “What’s clear is that those schools without a collective to help their athletes get deals are at risk of falling behind, especially in recruiting, where prospects and parents ask about NIL income almost as quickly as playing time.”

A Texas nonprofit, Horns with Heart, is more specific in its beneficence. It wants to help UT offensive linemen. This organization formed concurrently with UT head coach Steve Sarkisian’s lament that the team’s 5–7 record this past season might have been better if they had better — can you guess? — offensive linemen. Horns with Heart pledges $50,000 per year per offensive linemen for work supporting area charities.

The big NIL brouhaha, though, has erupted just up the road from Austin, in Aggieland. Texas A&M signed what many consider the best football recruiting class of this or any season — seven five-star recruits, nearly 20 four-stars — on the rumored strength of what is said to be a $25 million cache of NIL money raised by Aggie boosters. This had the always colorful and outspoken Lane Kiffin, coach of SEC rival Ole Miss, dropping terms like “salary cap” and “luxury tax” into the conversation. “We don’t have the funding resources as some schools with the NIL deals,” Kiffin said. “It’s like dealing with salary caps. I joked I didn’t know if Texas A&M incurred a luxury tax with how much they paid for their signing class.”

Kiffin’s comments, among others, triggered Aggie coach Jimbo Fisher. “There is no thirty million fund, there is no five million, ten million, this is garbage,” the coach fumed, calling those who spread the alleged lies “clown acts.” “It’s funny,” he went on. “When Nick Saban said his quarterback got an $800k deal, it was wonderful. Now, it’s not wonderful anymore…. The hypocrisy is a joke, and it’s insulting.” (Tune in tomorrow for another installment of As the SEC Turns.)

Texas is one of the states with no NIL laws. The legislature in Alabama, on the other hand, passed NIL laws. Now, however, Alabama lawmakers see that the NCAA guidelines are more lenient than the laws passed by its legislature, so the Alabama House is voiding its just-adopted NIL rules. The Crimson Tide and Auburn Tigers thank them kindly.

“It is the wild, wild West,” said Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. “Did anyone expect anything different?”

De Facto Free Agency

High school athletes have always signed binding letters of intent that commit them to play for one university. The specter of 17- and 18-year-olds irrevocably aligning their futures with one school, with one swirl of the pen, has always bothered both pundits and athletic officials — not to mention the parents of the signees. It struck many as unfair. Other students aren’t so “punished”: a computer student can transfer freely, no questions asked.

This concern, coupled with discontent — we’re being nice — directed toward coaches bound by no such constraints who skip out on contracts at their schools to take what is almost always a more lucrative job at another institution — suffering no consequences apart from a little bad press — has prompted the NCAA to loosen the rules on athletes transferring schools. The principal restriction deleted, just last spring, is the stipulation that transferring athletes must sit out one year of competition at the new school.

Understandably, this has sent a torrent of jocks flocking to what is called the “transfer portal,” a clearinghouse where athletes shop for new schools and schools kick the tires on new athletes. In November and December of last year, according to Sports Illustrated, more than 3,000 NCAA football players, across all divisions, entered the portal, 35 percent hailing from the top division, the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). Adding transfers has become part of personnel planning; lots of schools expect anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen players coming in from the portal every year. Some are quite bold about what’s going on: Wyoming coach Craig Bohl sent out a tweet advertising for a quarterback, for example.

Or consider Michigan State football. From November 2020 to May 2021, 27 Spartan players entered the portal while the school brought in 15 scholarship transfers. That’s 27 out, 15 in. To call that NFL-level turnover is more reality than hyperbole. “I’ve talked to several NFL scouts and they always joke around with me and say ‘this remind you of the NFL?’ ” head coach Mel Tucker said. “And it does in some ways.”

And it’s not only for benchwarmers looking for brighter tomorrows. One of the best players in college football, Caleb Williams, playing for one of the most successful programs, both historically and on a year-to-year basis — Oklahoma — entered the portal earlier this month (to follow former Sooner coach Lincoln Riley to USC, whose starting quarterback transferred to Ole Miss, whose starting quarterback left early for the NFL). A number of other former starting Power Five quarterbacks are also involved in this game of musical chairs.

It’s gotten to the point that a smart school will hire a full-time “portal” analyst, someone to keep track of who from his own school wants out and who in the portal might want in.

This has cranked up the pressure on coaches. A coach, especially in a sport with a smaller roster size, like basketball, might find it much more difficult to recruit high schoolers and develop them into a cohesive roster with such high year-to-year turnover. He might have six new players every year. Also, that talented recruit, the can’t-miss guy who needs a little seasoning — how confident can any coach be that that player will be content riding the pine to get that seasoning, even for a year?

The portal is, essentially, de facto college free agency. A player unhappy at one school will shop for another school with a number of factors in mind — possible playing time, campus culture, weather, academics, you name it. But one factor that will doubtless be considered is NIL possibilities — which school offers the best opportunity for the athlete to make money. So, schools with more lucrative NIL profiles have a competitive advantage not only on the recruiting field but also in what has become the transfer market.

“Your whole football team is out there [in the portal] for whoever wants to pay the most money,” Berry told Sports Illustrated. “We knew this was going to be a problem. This is a complete mess.”

It’s the wild, wild West, all right. Schools are out in the street, brawling and rasslin’ and duking it out with each other for prized recruits and transfers. And the sheriff is in the saloon, sitting this one out.

Source

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