NIL, ‘booster banks’ and recruiting wars: For some, it doesn’t add up

What Tommy Bowden remembers most are the alligator-skin boots and the shiny new cars, the pricey Rolexes and diamond-studded chains.

One by one, SMU players funneled into the room for individual interviews with dozens of college coaches from across the country, all of them descending upon Dallas to survey the best stock of players money could buy.

“It was like a meat market,” says Bowden, then an assistant coach at Alabama.

What was actually unfolding before Bowden’s eyes back in 1987—the parade of glamorously dressed college athletes visiting with recruiters on their own campus, free to transfer and play elsewhere—was the result of a lengthy investigation that led the NCAA to hand down the infamous “death penalty.” Ghastly recruiting violations were committed under coach Ron Meyer, and it shuttered the Mustangs’ program for two years.

Thirty-five years later, many of the NCAA-described “improper benefits” given to SMU athletes—cars, housing and cash—are now being distributed to players and promised to prospects in exchange for appearances, a few tweets and some commercials.

“I bet Ron Meyer is rolling in his grave,” Bowden says. “I can hear him now: ‘I told them they’d legislate this thing! We were doing it the right way!’”

LSU’s Kayshon Boutte, one of the nation’s top receivers, nearly entered the transfer portal in December until a booster was able to offer him an NIL deal that kept him in Baton Rouge.

Across the U.S. college sports landscape, from the heartland of Texas to the shores of Florida and hills of Tennessee, high-level boosters are privately or publicly using name, image and likeness deals to bankroll their teams, attempting to outbid one another for talent and creating a new arms race in college sports.

College football’s biggest donors have orchestrated business ventures that are distributing five-, six- and seven-figure payments to athletes under the guise of endorsement opportunities and appearance fees. They are also pooling millions of their dollars in creating exclusive, high-priced clubs—“collectives”—to retain current players, entice high school prospects or poach athletes from other programs.

These savvy and wealthy businesspeople are skirting vague NCAA guidelines that govern athlete compensation, many protected by their own state laws, with legislation in some areas being rewritten to further empower such behavior. And in this new era of emerging athletes’ rights under a toothless NCAA, they don’t fear repercussions and flaunt their coups. They are seen by many as saviors of their programs.

“What I’ve learned is, everybody is doing it now,” says Hugh Hathcock, an auto industry innovator who is worth a half-billion dollars and recently started a collective at the University of Florida, Gator Guard, by donating $1 million of his own money. “The landscape is, if we [Florida fans] don’t get the money, we’re going to lose players. No matter how well a kid likes Florida, if a school comes in at the last minute and says ‘We are going to pay you $100,000’ and we have $10,000, they’re gone.

“That ain’t gonna cut it if you’re competing against [Texas] A&M, Alabama and Georgia.”

Among the nearly two dozen college sports stakeholders who spoke to Sports Illustrated over the past six months, there are those who believe this is a chaotic market of cheating and others who see it as an example of capitalism and the American way. Some are downright angry at the swiftness with which the NCAA’s amateurism facade has collapsed; others are pleased athletes are finally reaping the benefits of a billion-dollar industry.

Experts believe more than 100 collectives exist, popping up daily in America’s college towns, many of them strongly backed by their schools and who regularly communicate with administration and coaching staffs, though they are not supposed to be affiliated with one another. The collectives vary in models, membership and financial capabilities, but their goals are mainly the same: to fund their schools’ rosters.

“We are exactly where we didn’t want to go,” MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher says. “We’ve talked long and hard about how institutions are not supposed to be in the business of setting up things, and we are seeing that institutions are now setting up these collectives.

“That’s not name, image and likeness—that’s pay for play.”

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Whether you agree or not, right or wrong, good or bad, big money donors have stepped out of the shadows and into locker rooms. Not yet a year into the NIL Era of college sports, the landscape is shifting dramatically, contorting the industry back into the booster-driven world that some say plagued the game a half-century ago (see: SMU).

College sports is trapped in a gray area between amateurism and professionalism, a purgatory that features a sideshow of high-stakes recruiting where activity that was considered illegal decades ago is now, well, legal.

“We’re funneling everything previously under-the-table over the table,” says one SEC staff member who spoke to SI under the condition of anonymity. “The big change is the numbers are going up. Before [NIL], you knew it was bulls— if a kid came to you and said he was getting more than $50,000 from another school. Now, numbers that used to be bulls— aren’t bulls— anymore.

“Everything now comes down to how willing are your boosters and how rich are your boosters. You’re pretty much f—– if you don’t have the booster bank.”

Boosters now in limelight via “collectives”

Shortly after NIL was first implemented in certain states last July, many players turned to autograph sessions for pay. Now, boosters and NIL companies are expanding the payoff.

This isn’t Rick Vasquez’s day job, but it is his most popular job.

Vasquez, a 33-year-old tech executive living in Austin, owns and operates a website for Texas fans, Surly Horns, that added a new NIL-inspired component last fall, believed to be one of the first nationally crowd-sourced programs. It took Vasquez less than two weeks to fully fund the program in “perpetuity,” he says.

“At first, I didn’t want to get involved and jeopardize eligibility,” he explains. “Turns out, no one else got into the NIL game and we thought that was stupid at Texas. We got five margs deep after a podcast one night and said, ‘How can we get involved in NIL?’”

NIL has quickly evolved from its original intent of star athletes sponsoring a local business to crowdfunding models doling out four- and five-figure payments for appearances. When the first NIL legislation was passed in a handful of states last summer, there were mega-deals mostly reserved for the nation’s top athletes and social media stars; now, it has escalated into bidding wars for elite football and men’s basketball players.

Burnt Ends—a group of fans with a mission of distributing $70,000 each year to Texas tight ends, roughly $10,000 a player—represents how many collectives began: mom-and-pop startups pooling money from a legion of online fans who receive exclusive access to players, such as appearances, podcasts and private events, in exchange for donations.

At Texas and other premier college football schools, it is now something more lavish— well-organized and creative millionaires’ clubs bankrolling at least a portion of a team. One collective popped up in Texas three months after Burnt Ends introduced its concept. UT’s millionaires’ club, the Clark Field Collective, began with $10 million in the pot.

According to sources who have examined player contracts and with knowledge of the recruiting landscape, collectives at elite Power 5 programs are developing a baseline of planning to pay each current football player or prospect a standard salary.

“Based on what we are hearing, $50,000–$100,000 a year seems to be the average rate,” says Peter Schoenthal, CEO of Athliance, an NIL management and compliance software company that works with college athletic programs and collectives. “The in-your-face inducements are only really starting to happen now. It’s being done in the open.”

The numbers are startling. Opendorse, arguably the biggest sports tech platform in the NIL space, manages 12 collectives that have raised nearly $50 million combined. By year’s end, Opendorse expects that number to be over $100 million, or roughly $10 million per collective, a virtual player salary pool of cash tagged as “NIL.” Opendorse CEO Blake Lawrence believes more than $500 million could be raised in player NIL funds among the 65 Power 5–associated collectives, a staggering figure of mostly new money flooding into the market.

“In a matter of months, NIL shifted from a ‘Here’s what you can get’ to ‘Here’s what you will get,’” Lawrence says. “Five-stars are the new first-rounders. They’ve always been coveted that way. Now, they’re being compensated that way.”

A host of school-specific collectives have recently made waves. Hathcock’s collective for Florida has a stated goal of $20 million by year’s end. Rising Spear, benefitting Florida State, is another new collective that anticipates raising $7 million to $10 million in 2022. A collective in Oklahoma guarantees to pay $50,000 to each Sooner football player and has a familiar face leading the effort: Barry Switzer.

“With NIL, we’re going to play the game. It’s legal. We’ll listen to what the coach tells us to do. I just raise the money for them to use.” —Hugh Hathcock

Even Group of 5 program SMU, infamously rocked by that NCAA cheating scandal, will benefit from the trend with alum Eric Dickerson leading a collective that expects to donate more than $1 million to NIL initiatives. In a brash move, the university is embracing its checkered past, posting in April a tweet of one of the more infamous symbols of an NCAA investigation that resulted in the death penalty: a gold TransAm belonging to Dickerson himself.

“The goal is to create a baseline,” says Jason Belzer, one of the founders of SANIL, an agency that helps manage several collectives. “[OU coach] Brent Venables can now go out and recruit and say ‘Each one of our student-athletes earns $50,000!’”

NIL has inadvertently paved an avenue for boosters to restart behavior widely present in the 1970s and ’80s. To ensure compliance, they must follow a short list of NCAA guidelines: a quid pro quo (or exchange of work) and payment for performance or enrollment is prohibited. Schools in states with laws governing NIL operate under such laws, most of them with similar guidelines to the NCAA.

“Quid pro quo, it’s really the only box you have to check in the NIL era,” says Drew Butler, a former NCAA and NFL punter who is vice president of Icon Source’s NIL collegiate division. “But you don’t see a lot of NIL activation to justify the dollar amounts being paid.”

It has caught the NCAA’s attention. The organization sent letters of inquiry to at least two schools, Miami and BYU, but is not believed to have generated any full-scale investigation or enforced its own bylaws prohibiting boosters from being involved in recruiting.

“The expectation is that there is actual NIL activity, not just payments of cash,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey says. “It’s not clear that these collectives are actually engaged in meeting that expectation.”

Given the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling against the NCAA last summer in the Alston case—which argued that the NCAA’s rules on education-related compensation were unfair and violate federal antitrust law—the organization is handcuffed to enforce its own guidelines, risking a fruitless challenge to state laws and legal recourse from wealthy collectives. If NIL deals include an exchange of deliverables from the athletes and were signed after the prospect inks their national letter of intent, there is little the governing body can do, experts tell SI.

“And it’s not that difficult to have athletes do the quid pro quo,” says Schoenthal, who helps advise many collectives on compliance. “There are social media posts, autograph signings, speaking engagements and so on.”

There is another way for athletes to complete NIL deliverables: endorse their own collective. At South Carolina, Garnet Trust, is paying athletes to encourage fans to join the collective, which in turn pays the athletes through NIL deals.

Experts say it’s a creative move, and one that is perfectly legal.

“It’s no different than athletes encouraging fans/boosters to donate money to the athletic department, which has happened for a long time,” says Mit Winter, a commercial litigation attorney based in Kansas City who has represented the NCAA and conferences.

Collectives are wising up. They’ve hired people like Schoenthal and companies like Opendorse to assure they are appropriately documenting their athlete deals to avoid garnering attention from the NCAA. Some collective staff members are former athletic department employees. The collective for Georgia has a CEO, Matt Hibbs, who once worked in the UGA compliance office. TCU’s former compliance director, Brent Cunningham, heads up Think NIL, the collective for TCU. Nebraska’s former football chief of staff, Gerrod Lambrecht, is its collective’s president.

Collectives and their schools are, for the most part, in constant communication, some even operating as a separate fundraising arm. They take calls from coaches, athletic administrators and compliance staff members. How much can or should schools be involved? It is a gray area that is continuously trampled upon.

“In the past, certain teams haven’t done it the ethically right way,” Hathcock says. “Now with NIL, we’re going to play the game. It’s legal. We’ll listen to what the coach tells us to do. I just raise the money for them to use.”

Some state laws that at first prohibited school involvement in third-party NIL ventures are being amended or repealed (Alabama is one example). Tennessee’s law was recently reworded to grant the universities the ability to freely communicate with their collectives and allows NIL deals contingent on enrollment, a potential violation of NCAA bylaws and guidelines.

Experts tell SI that they believe collectives will soon professionalize, hiring big-time agencies to manage their operation. For instance, Belzer says he receives at least three calls from schools each week wanting to start up a collective but don’t know how. The same goes for staff at Opendorse.

“They want to know what it’s going to take,” says Braly Keller, an NIL specialist at Opendorse and a former NIL coordinator at Nebraska.

Some collectives are growing so quickly, they’ve opened offices. Others have partnered with media entities to reserve space for podcasts and commercial shoots. Belzer has people on the ground at many of his collective sites, including Success With Honor at Penn State, where the group is attempting to build a more sustainable model than having a small handful of millionaires giving seven figures each year. The goal: get 10,000 Penn State fans to contribute $10-$500 each per month.

“If run properly,” Belzer says, “a Penn State or an SEC school should be able to generate $5–10 million a year.”

To amass a top-flight signing class, “admission into the recruiting game” is roughly $5 million, says one source who consults with collectives. That’s enough to supply an entire football team with a $50,000 salary per player.

“A lot of these collectives are going to be philanthropic and pay players only $10,000 a year,” says the person. “Others are playing a different game.”

More money, more problems

South Florida billionaire John Ruiz knows he is at the center of the latest NIL splash and a person everyone loves to hate.

Ten days ago, his latest move drew intense scrutiny. Using his own Twitter account, he announced the University of Miami received a commitment from Kansas State transfer guard Nijel Pack and that he, Ruiz, signed the hoops star to a two-year deal for $400,000 a year. Pack will endorse Ruiz’s two companies, LifeWallet, a healthcare application, and the Cigarette (boat) Racing Team. The tweet drew more than 5 million impressions, something Ruiz points to as an early return on his investment. The post also had college sports’ figurative jaws dropping to the floor, with critics pointing to the move’s boldness and dollar figures.

“We feel our platform is the only one in the country that truly would be resilient to any attack by the NCAA,” says Ruiz, an ardent supporter of UM athletics whose three children attended the school. “A majority of people don’t understand the law. Their first reaction is, ‘If it’s not my team, it’s no good!’ The reality is there is a quid pro quo.”

Ruiz plans to invest as much as $10 million into NIL ventures as a marketing tool for his $3.4 billion worth of companies. So far, he has more than 100 athletes from a variety of sports on the payroll, and all but six of them compete for Miami. The deals range from $6,000 a year to Pack’s agreement.

“He and our compliance office have had a lot of conversations,” Miami AD Dan Radakovich says. “The dollars associated with it … I guess that’s just the market.”

Ruiz is an example of a “directive”—a single wealthy booster, compared to the group that constitutes a collective, responsible for facilitating a majority of a team’s NIL payments. Several programs now have a directive, some still kept private and others more public, some moderately wealthy as millionaires and others extraordinarily rich as billionaires.

Leaders continue to lobby for NIL state laws overall or amendments to legislation that will give programs more leeway. Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart, Kentucky State Senator Max Wise, and Kentucky hoops coach John Calipari testified for their state in February.

Injury lawyer Gordon McKernan, an LSU graduate and Baton Rouge native, is a more modest directive. His modern three-story law office hugs Interstate 10, welcoming visitors to Louisiana’s capital city with a reminder that an SEC program resides here—a giant golden flag emblazoned with purple L-S-U letters that connects McKernan’s shop with his hometown team. In the NIL era, he is no longer only using his alma mater’s banner to promote his business. He’s using, and paying, the players. “I got off the sideline to prevent our players from being poached. You have to put a wall around them,” he says.

In the past only able to legally donate to an athletic department, these men have now stepped into the bright lights. They are piecing together—and salvaging—rosters.

LSU’s Kayshon Boutte, one of the nation’s top receivers, nearly entered the transfer portal in December and was being courted by a pair of LSU’s SEC rivals.

“I was duck hunting and got a call,” McKernan says. “I jumped in and cut a deal with him to represent my company and brand.”

McKernan declined to reveal the extent of Boutte’s contract details or the programs attempting to poach him, except to say, “Alabama and Texas A&M are very innovative.”

LSU has yet to form a collective because of Louisiana’s state NIL law, but McKernan says an amendment is working its way through the state legislature that would open the door for the university to be more involved and, likely, create a collective. In the meantime, he expects to spend roughly $500,000 of his own money on NIL ventures by year’s end. He believes the rates for college stars in the portal and elite high school recruits will only skyrocket.

“For really good players out of high school,” he says, “you’re talking $100,000 a year.”

The structuring of contracts is tricky. Companies that consult with collectives have suggested they offer only short deals, no more than one year and sometimes even one month—a preventative measure to account for potential transferring. However, especially in recruiting, a total value is often promised, such as a four-year deal for $300,000. The payments are delivered in increments once the athletes’ deliverables are completed.

That said, the grander deals are true, long-term contracts that often purchase a player’s NIL rights for a set number of years. The collectives can then use a player’s image to sell memorabilia or, for a price, grant sponsors the right to use a player’s image, as a school does with media rights partners such as Learfield.

SI obtained at least one contract from a collective, sent to a football player, that would control the athlete’s intellectual property, including his Twitter account, for a period of time over his college career. The collective is offering only a three-figure, one-time payment—astonishingly low for such rights.

These deals can be concerning for some, especially if there’s no set end date.

“I can’t tell you how many contracts I’ve seen from brands that have that language,” says Darren Heitner, a sports attorney based in Florida who has reviewed more than 100 NIL deals. “There are 400,000 athletes out there. The vast majority don’t have the capacity to hire an experienced lawyer.”

Directives and those representing collectives are growing more audacious by the day. Not unlike their own team’s quarreling fan bases, they take public shots at one another.

“Any donor can come up to us and say I want to provide X number of dollars to this athlete,” Belzer says. “Our job is to create fair market value. Once they commit, we can make that student athlete an offer. We’re not doing the $400,000 for LifeWallet and we’re not tampering with portal kids. I’d rather go work at McDonald’s.”

Experts believe more than 100 collectives exist, some backed by their schools and who regularly communicate with administration and coaches.

Ruiz is a regular target. So is Texas A&M and its multimillion dollar collective called The Fund. For years now, Texas and Texas A&M’s athletic departments have routinely grossed more in donations than any other schools in the country. Just last year, the Aggies pulled in $47.7 million in donations—one-fifth of the total donations to the 13 SEC public schools combined. And Texas? The Longhorns led everyone with $60 million in giving.

“Somebody better figure out how to compete with Texas and Texas A&M,” McKernan says before he gestures toward the root of the Texas cash. “What is oil—$100 a barrel right now?”

Ruiz has shots to take at his collective competitors. He doesn’t believe collectives will survive scrutiny from the NCAA and maybe even the IRS.

“A collective is just a bunch of people throwing money at players,” he says.

Ruiz defends his moves as honest endorsement ventures that will reap benefits for his companies. Besides, NIL money isn’t the only factor in decisions from recruits. He has signed players who were “offered more money at other places,” he says.

Ruiz was at the center of one of the first public illustrations of how NIL dollars can trigger locker room animosity, perhaps as a result of publicly revealing Pack’s six-figure deal. The agent of another Miami basketball player threatened that his client, guard Isaiah Wong, would transfer if he were not paid more in NIL cash. Ruiz didn’t budge, releasing publicly that he will not renegotiate Wong’s deal.

In the end though, the billionaire booster agreed to find Wong additional NIL income from another south Florida entity—a sentence that just a year ago would have shocked many.

The locker room issues aside, Ruiz is essential to Miami’s future success, so important that one Power 5 athletic director says of him, “If you don’t have somebody like that, you’re probably going to be left way behind.”

NIL: Pros, cons and “what happens to the bag man”

Oscar Tshiebwe decided to stay on at Kentucky rather than jump to the NBA because of the opportunity to earn NIL dollars.

Proponents of NIL believe the benefits of the law outweigh any negatives—college town charities, athletes staying in college for longer periods of time, small businesses partnering with collectives and collectives putting money in the pockets of the industry’s labor force, many from a low-income background, that has for years earned only scholarships while coaches bathed in millions.

Last month, Kentucky star Oscar Tshiebwe became the first National Player of the Year in a decade to stay in college instead of leaping to the NBA. Days later, Michigan’s Hunter Dickinson did the same. Tshiebwe is believed to be making as much as $2 million in NIL money next year at UK, and Dickinson has attributed his decision to NIL, saying it “definitely opened up [the door] for me to come back.”

Matt Quigley, the director of FSU’s Rising Spear, gives one example of a recent deal his group struck with an FSU athlete. Quigley declined to give his or her name, but said their mother worked three jobs. She’s now down to one.

“It’s about time they’re allowed to profit,” Quigley says. “A very small amount of college football players were being paid under the table. Now we are shining a light on it and people are saying, ‘How dare we do this?’”

Yet, it isn’t only fans, athletic administrators and coaches who are uncomfortable with or against the latest evolution of NIL. It’s also players who have recently graduated, like Kendall Spencer, an NCAA athlete turned attorney who appeared on multiple legislative panels during the two-year buildup to the NIL era’s start last July. “This is word-for-word what I had in a testimony [to Congress]: If we do this, there is nothing stopping a booster from saying, ‘Hey, I want to give Spencer $600!’ They can go do it. “This is what we wanted.”

There are two arguments against what some are calling a Wild West of no regulations, enforcements or rules: (1) how it is negatively impacting a team through the high rate of player movement; and (2) how it is impacting a recruiting landscape now geared toward the wealthiest.

The first one is a real problem, says Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. “It’s all about When am I going to play? and How much NIL money are you going to give me?” he says. “It’s the parents driving the NIL discussion.”

Berry predicted long ago that locker room conflicts—like the Miami basketball situation—would emerge. And the situation at LSU—where its star player, Boutte, was being lured to another program with NIL cash—is happening across the college game.

A record of more than 2,700 FBS players entered the transfer portal since August. That’s roughly 20 per team. Though many were walk-ons and some remained on their teams, it’s safe to say the average school lost one-eighth of its scholarship football players to transfer—a reason that college leaders are exploring a change to a decades-old signing limit.

Some schools seem to be amassing super teams. Take USC, where new coach Lincoln Riley mined his former school, Oklahoma, signing the Sooners’ star quarterback, receiver and cornerback. Now, the Trojans are the expected destination for Pitt receiver Jordan Addison, the 2021 Biletnikoff winner, who is considering a transfer.

“We are in a time of college football where teams are recruiting your players and telling them what they can do for them with NIL,” says UCF coach Gus Malzahn.

Player agents are behind some of the issues, says Belzer, the manager of the Penn State collective and himself an agent to coaches. Agents, making as much as 20%, have approached collectives marketing their players who are on other college teams. They’re naming prices, he says. Meanwhile, Belzer’s coaching clients have players in the portal whose agents have demanded from coaches more NIL pay.

“We’ve enabled them to go through college, not get a trade and if they don’t have football success, what are they destined for?” — Kirby Smart

Experienced transferring quarterbacks are requesting as much as $10,000 a month in NIL cash, sources confirmed to SI.

“Everybody wants to hide under the NIL umbrella. This isn’t NIL,” says Rick George, the Colorado athletic director. “As the leaders of the industry, we have to say, ‘This is not acceptable.’”

“NIL,” says Corey Staniscia, the external affairs director at the NIL deal-making platform Dreamfield, “it’s become a dirty, tarnished word already.”

Tom McMillen, the CEO of LEAD1, an organization representing the FBS athletic directors, says college sports has transformed into “dog eat dog,” with every school attempting to out-pace, out-bid and out-maneuver the other.

“It’s the new arms race,” he says. “It’s gone from coaching salaries to facilities and now it’s name, image and likeness.”

The recruiting trail is spicier than ever, particularly in the South, where roughly two-thirds of the nation’s best recruits reside and where members of the country’s most powerful league have historically waged grimy bidding wars for talent. The prices have only soared.

In one January battle, two SEC programs sparred over a five-star defensive prospect. One offered about $50,000 a year in NIL money. And the other?

“About $150,000 a year,” says a person from the private sector who has knowledge of the deal and saw contract details.

The player committed to the higher bidder. The value of his NIL deal is four years and roughly $600,000, the person told SI under condition of anonymity. The person chuckles at the new bidding war. He’s familiar with such situations. He used to deliver bags of money for an SEC team.

“I was a bag man,” he acknowledges. “What happens to the bag men now?”

In the NIL era, the bag is now delivered electronically.

Most collectives use digital means to send payments, often the application Venmo. However, there was a problem for some, says Lawrence, the CEO of Opendorse. “You can’t send more than $3,000 on Venmo,” he says—a sign of the magnitude of some single payments.

The money is “creating false hopes” and inflating the market, says Brad Blevins, a sports attorney based in San Antonio who represents athletes. “It’s absurd.”

Collectives are striking deals that include not only cash. Some feature free cars and housing. Some take it a step further. During a recruiting bidding war with a school during this signing class, a collective promised that the prospect’s family would be flown in for home games on a private jet.

It was the deciding factor in his decision, says a source who reviewed details of the deal.

Such recruiting bidding wars can greatly increase a prospect’s baseline, which one industry insider describes as the “rookie minimum.” The money is getting serious enough that boosters, administrators and coaches are in a balancing act as it relates to NIL salaries for prospects versus those already on the roster.

Take for instance this comment from a collective CEO who wished to remain anonymous: “The current roster’s value is a little diminished. They’re already in the building.”

One Power 5 assistant told SI that his team is toying with the idea of spreading salaries evenly, treating the 85 like the 53 on an NFL roster but without hierarchy. “Or do you pay a starting quarterback more value? You don’t want to mess up the locker room,” he says.

The recruiting NIL wars, you might call them, began long ago. In fact, in an interview with SI in January, Boost Mobile CEO Stephen Stokols says he found himself uncomfortably in the middle of them.

“I was on the call with an AD of a major school. He can’t get involved but at the same time, he asks, ‘How can we get involved?’” Stokols says. “They are toeing the rules. I’ve been asked to take a reference call with a recruit. ‘Can you take the call and tell them you’d be interested in them if they come to the school?’”

So what if players are earning money, says Andy Schwarz, an economist specializing in sport economics. He pushes back on the idea that such payments will alter a recruiting landscape or impact parity that already trends toward the rich.

From 1998 to 2020, six teams won 74% of the national championships: Alabama (6), LSU (3), Clemson (2), Florida State (2), Florida (2) and Ohio State (2). Five of the six are not only inside the top 12 nationally in 2019 athletic budgets but also have reeled in the best talent in the nation over the last decade. In a study from MaxPreps, seven college football programs have signed 55% of the five-star prospects from ’11 to ’21. They include LSU, Alabama, Clemson, Florida State and Ohio State, as well as USC and Georgia, the ’21 national champion.

“NIL may spread out talent ever so slightly on the margin, but overall, the rich are neither going to get richer or poorer; they are just going to use their riches differently to remain as rich as ever,” Schwarz says.

Not everyone agrees, including the rich.

“The separation that is already there is going to grow larger,” says Georgia coach Kirby Smart. Smart describes the latest NIL evolution as “scary” to him. Players are becoming dependent on what he calls “monthly NIL income” that is not tied to academic success and does not guarantee them a spot in the NFL.

“We’ve enabled them to go through college, not get a trade and if they don’t have football success, what are they destined for?” he asks. “It would have been really hard on me as a college student and have some of the income that the young men have. I wish we would have a way to protect them.”

The players can make those decisions for themselves, says Kayvon Thibodeaux, a former Oregon star and the Giants’ first-round pick in this year’s draft. He became one of the first stars of NIL, inking deals through the university’s Nike-backed collective called Division Street.

He grew up on what he calls “the bottom side of the poverty line.” His parents split up when he was young. His mom worked long hours at the beauty shop to put dinner on the table. He bristles at comments from those against the NIL evolution.

“NIL gave us the opportunity to present ourselves as professionals,” he says. “Yeah, it has created an unfair playing field, but life is unfair.”

There’s no backtracking on NIL now

At the heart of the NIL confusion and controversy: less jurisdiction for the NCAA.

Back in Baton Rouge, McKernan’s office is shimmering in the afternoon sun, that tall LSU flag catching the eyes of those riding the concrete river below.

Like so many in these uncharted waters, he’s unsure whether this new business venture—spending a half-million dollars on athletes to endorse his brand—is actually worth it. If it works, he says, he’ll keep spending beyond this year.

But how will he know if it “works”?

“That’s a great question. It’s hard,” he says. “It’s not like some of our other things where we can track it.”

One thing he does know: He believes that the marketing campaign with LSU athletes will at least boost his favorability rating across the state. Injury attorneys, he says, are often dubbed as ambulance chasers.

“We have a low Q-Rating,” he laughs. “Maybe this will build some good will.”

Good will and, maybe, a good record for the Tigers.

And for Hathcock, a good record for the Gators. For Ruiz, championships for the Hurricanes. For dozens of collectives, the best team money can buy.

Meanwhile, the college game remains in a purgatory. There is an exit door in this place, says Schwarz, the economist from California. Yet, it goes ignored.

“I know everyone is pointing to this as a sign of the End of Days, but the answer is not difficult,” he says. “Just admit this is a market for talent and stop pretending it’s not, then regularize it, not with collusive ‘guardrails’ but with contracts and negotiated frameworks.”

Is college football headed for a professionalized model? Many believe it’s the only way out.

“Everybody knew it was going to go here, that NIL was opening up Pandora’s Box. Well, it’s open,” says Jim Cavale, the CEO of Inflcr, one of the biggest NIL marketplaces in the space. “It’s going to lead to rules and regulations down the line and it’s going to lead to actual revenue sharing with the school you play for.”

For now, at many places, the game is quite literally in the hands of wealthy figures who, for so many years, were hidden or altogether suppressed, millionaires and billionaires who often landed their programs in investigations, who cost their schools respectability.

“Everything I knew as a coach for 30-plus years that you couldn’t do, now that’s what you do,” says Petersen, the former Washington and Boise State coach who himself is involved—though very little—with Washington’s collective.

“You always stayed away from the boosters. Now, they are running it.”

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