College Football Problems and Ways to Fix Them: Name, Image and Likeness
Editor’s note: This story was published prior to the NCAA’s new guidance on NIL, but the analysis remains unchanged from the original version.
Easily one of the most polarizing topics in the past few decades, athlete compensation has entered a new era in college sports.
After many years of debates, procrastination and more, the NCAA introduced name, image and likeness—commonly referred to as NIL—rights in the summer of 2021. Though half-hearted at best, the interim rules allowed players to receive compensation from endorsements. On paper, recruiting inducements and a pay-for-play or performance-based structure were still prohibited.
But it hasn't been that simple.
The result of this much-needed change has been chaos, which was predictable given the absence of regulations and oversight.
While our offseason series is specific to college football, the NIL conversation is a challenge for college sports as a whole.
What Was the Intent?
In short: Athletes can make money because of NIL rights.
For decades, the NCAA slow-played this discussion and—with moderate success—convinced a vocal crowd that a cost-of-attendance scholarship was adequate compensation. The governing body resisted any broad changes until the United States Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA in the Shawne Alston case.
About 10 days later, the NCAA unveiled interim rules that effectively said athletes can engage in NIL activities that comply with state laws. The NCAA noted its intent to "continue to work with Congress to adopt federal legislation to support student-athletes."
Proponents of NIL rights—myself included—expressed great relief. Finally, if a local company wanted to pay an athlete to endorse its brand and be compensated, it could happen.
That, admittedly, was the surface-level improvement.
The real story is any business previously done in the proverbial shadows could now be conducted in the open.
What Has It Become?
The leading cause of tampering, for sure.
As well-intended as pro-NIL voices are, the idyllic scenarios of athletes endorsing a local car dealership or other business are merely small pieces of the equation. Deep-pocketed boosters—and, more specifically, collectives of them—have created and/or are building pipelines to attract top players.
That wording is distinct, too. Those pipelines are meant to interest all top players, not simply high schoolers.
The ease of accessing the transfer portal plus one-time immediate eligibility truly has produced free agency in college sports. Current athletes can be lured away from their present school based on NIL opportunities, while incoming athletes can be swayed to attend a specific program for the same reason.
Ultimately, it's become a bidding war. That itself is not a problem—let the athletes earn their money!
For competitive purposes, however, the dream scenario of NIL rights leveling the playing field is simply that: a dream. The rich programs, metaphorically and realistically, are getting richer.
What's the Big Problem?
"We're not enforcing NIL deals, and we're not enforcing the interim policy, which is largely permissive," NCAA vice president of enforcement Jon Duncan told Ralph D. Russo of the Associated Press.
That sums it up nicely, no?
Without any legitimate oversight, the only supervision comes from a school's compliance office. As long as the NIL deal is cleared, though, nothing stands in the way of tampering, recruiting promises and other prohibited-but-unchecked tactics.
For example, Chris Carter of DK Pittsburgh Sports noted that Pitt receiver Jordan Addison—the Biletnikoff Award winner as the best wideout in 2021—has received "multiple NIL offers," including one from USC that would be worth over $1 million.
Stewart Mandel of The Athletic previously reported a 5-star recruit in the 2023 class has already signed an agreement that could pay more than $8 million. Mandel also relayed a story of a Power Five program losing a prospect in the 2022 class because a different school ended up offering $300,000 on signing day.
If you're like me, none of those situations are an actual concern. But they all—among many case studies—unquestionably do not comply with the rules in place.
Yet who's stopping them? Nobody. Without the threat of punishment, college football teams and their connected communities have no incentive to follow the rules.
What's the Primary Fix?
The NCAA's stubborn lack of foresight and absence of meaningful initial guidance have shaped an ungoverned NIL world. Rogue boosters have become celebrated and in the spotlight. Athletes are chasing paydays, tearing down the facade of amateurism and transferring when bigger checks are offered.
Again, that's fine. If you want to contribute resources to convince an athlete to play somewhere, go ahead. Individuals capitalizing on their values is fantastic.
But a lawless start makes a law-abiding second act impossible when there is nobody to hold anyone accountable.
The NCAA likely has little interest in creating rules that would invite more antitrust litigation. The federal government could establish laws, but college sports are not—and, you know, probably shouldn't be—a high priority. The most powerful conferences and schools certainly aren't going to lead a drive for change.
Until and unless there is genuine leadership, there is no actionable solution to this boundless NIL system.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick recently said a Division I breakup is inevitable. Based on that prognostication, it's entirely possible the NCAA won't get a second chance at reining in the unintended consequences of NIL rights. Instead, that challenge will belong to the next administrative powers.