Coming off a week of rapid developments and legal actions between the NCAA, the University of Tennessee and at least two states over name, image and likeness compensation, potential recruiting violations and other issues, the pace is about to slow considerably once matters head to court.
That’s the shared opinion of three college sports observers who have divergent opinions on who’s right, what’s wrong with the NIL system as it currently stands, and how it could affect the future of college athletics.
“We’ll see how it turns out. I will say this: You read what Chancellor Plowman said. This thing will be litigated for many years if they (NCAA) keep going down this road,” says Nashville sports talk show host Doug Mathews, a former assistant football coach at both Tennessee and Vanderbilt (where he played) as well as other schools during his long career.
“Tennessee’s not going to back down on this thing. I don’t believe the state of Tennessee, the attorney general, is going to back down on this thing. I have no doubt there’s going to be many other universities and – by that, probably state attorneys general – that say, ‘Hey we’ve got our own laws here.’ So I think we’re going to see more and more.
“I think (the NCAA will) have a lot of problems with all these states that have their own NIL laws. They don’t give a damn what the NCAA says. The federal government, yes, but not the NCAA. I think they’re going to have trouble on this. I really do.”
Vanderbilt communications professor John Koch, a senior lecturer and director of debate whose areas of interest are public memory and the intersection of political culture, rhetoric and sports, sees a lengthy scenario playing out in the court system.
“I think we’re in this period now of unforeseen consequences to letting (NIL) happen and seeing how it developed so quickly that the norms and rules and stuff couldn’t adapt quickly enough to it,” Koch says. “So halting it for a little bit while the lawsuits work their way through the courts might not be the worst thing.
“I think we all need to take a breath and try to figure out what this new world of college sports looks like with the transfer portal and NIL. We’ve all just kind of let it develop. And it happened so quickly that we didn’t stop and think about how to make sure that it is regulated in a way that’s good for the athlete, the university, etc.”
NIL de facto free agency
For a national perspective, the Ledger spoke with Columbia University lecturer Joe Favorito, who has more than 30 years of strategic communications, marketing, development and public relations expertise around the business of sports.
“I think the biggest challenge is that you cannot have unregulated flow of cash, of goods and services,” Favorito says. “You need some kind of regulation, and I think the schools and the coaches – and probably some of the parents, if not the athletes – are begging for what the path forward is going to be for NIL.
“It has become a battle of cash trading hands without any kind of real show of what the return is. That’s kind of where it sits today.
“Now is this good business for college sports overall? Probably not. Is it fair and equitable for everybody else? Probably not. But it’s the system that exists right now and that system in many ways is broken,” he adds.
“Sometimes, when something is broken like this, you need either cooler heads or catastrophic failure or the court systems or the government to step in and say this is the way it has to be.”
Koch says the current NIL system has “become like a free agency period – very similar to professional sports. This has gotten really big, really fast. We’re only a few years into NIL. I don’t think the NCAA imagined that it would be this big, this fast.
“Rules and norms and practices and enforcement, I think, have been quick to adapt to this fast-paced development of NIL – especially these collectives that have multimillions of dollars that are being raised and being used to attract students to universities. And then how these collectives interact with the universities themselves.
“There’s going to have to be quickly some development from the NCAA about how to handle these collectives and the interaction between the collectives and the university. It will be really confusing to pass rules if we do this state by state, honestly. And then that would give certain schools an unfair advantage over others. So I would certainly think that this might be something that might require federal legislation.”
Not a level playing field
Mathews says he’s been a longtime proponent of the NCAA but is frustrated by its handling of the UT allegations and fully supports UT’s stance, especially the Chancellor’s blast directed at the NCAA.
“I was tremendously impressed,” he says. “I can’t tell you how invigorated I was to see a chancellor of a university and/or president come out and just forcefully say, ‘Hey, go to hell.’ That’s essentially what she said. I think you’re going to see more presidents do that because it’s just simply wrong.”
While Favorito lauds NIL rules that allows players to be handsomely compensated for their skills by entering into commercial agreements through the collectives, he says the system is flawed because it’s not a level playing field. Part of the NCAA investigation into Tennessee is about the multi-million-dollar NIL agreement for sophomore quarterback Nico Imealeava that has been widely reported.
“I think NIL is a tremendous opportunity to reward students for what they essentially have – their name, image and likeness – which they can control and exists in every business known to humankind other than college sports. But you need some kind of restraint,” Favorito says.
“You need a policing system and you need to make sure that it makes sense for everyone. Otherwise, it’s a system that’s rampant for abuse.
“There’s going to be a reckoning at some point where, if these young people have been getting cash payments from people and they’re not carefully regulated, you’ve got the IRS sitting out there, who is going to step in and say, ‘Well, you’ve taken all this cash; that’s a business transaction. Where’s the taxes coming out of this?’
“That could be a potentially litigious situation and a felonious situation for athletes who don’t know, and they’re being abused by the system.
“I think you need regulation. I think schools, coaches, AAU programs, (and) athletes need guidelines. Without guidelines, you have anarchy and you have chaos. And that’s kind of where it is right now.”
Mathews says UT operated within state guidelines because the NCAA wouldn’t offer guidance.
“Believe me, if there’s one thing I am 100% sure on, there’s many other universities and collectives that did the exact same thing that Tennessee did because at the time there were no rules to regulate anything,” Mathews says. (The NCAA) told the universities – not the athletic department – they told the universities to stay out of name, image, likeness.
“Do you think any university wanted all this to be to an outside entity to control the money that’s (being paid) to their student-athletes? The NCAA said the university can’t do it.
“The U.S. Supreme Court said, ‘You have to allow name, image, likeness.’ The NCAA said, ‘Yes, but the university itself cannot do it.’ So now they’re going to punish the university. It doesn’t make any … it’s laughable.”