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Money Talks: Name, Image and Likeness Raises the Stakes for Players and Schools Alike

Jordan Addison, Pittsburgh Panthers Football

As the football world focused its attention on the NFL Draft in late April, a headline-stealing report emerged: New USC head coach Lincoln Riley and the Trojans were testing the limits of college football's new name, image and likeness policy, attempting to lure reigning Biletnikoff Award-winning wideout Jordan Addison of the Pittsburgh Panthers into the transfer portal and on to SoCal via a reportedly massive NIL enticement.

The reactions were swift and vehement. Some accused the Trojans of tampering, since Addison had not yet entered the transfer portal when the reports of the offer emerged. Others simply called it the sport's new normal.

If it weren't obvious before, it is now: Free agency has officially come to college football. Nick Saban himself observed that NIL "creates a situation where you can basically buy players."

The fallout of the Addison case is still developing and will doubtless reverberate for months to come, but it's only the latest example of college football's Brave New World of unfettered capitalism and free-market competition.

The first year of NIL has brought money and mirth, but also plenty of pitfalls. Addison's reported move to USC — a school that new Pitt quarterback Kedon Slovis had left only months before — felt to some like a foreboding whoosh down the slippery slope toward chaos. The effects on the sport itself, some seemingly quite worrisome, are only starting to come into view. But we do know this: empowering student-athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness has yielded a gold rush that is distinctly American — equal parts optimistic and opportunistic.

And in a distinctly American manner, it's the older folks, not the kids, who are most likely to screw it up.

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It's great that college football players can seize their own slice of capitalism, but only for those who have people around them who will help protect them from errors. And that is not the case for every player entering this new reality. Some players will give too much away to agents. Some will be oblivious to the need to prepare for tax season. Some will eagerly sign deals that will look good on their face but carry with them a lot of extra work over a lot of extra time.

Strain has already emerged in some corners of the college football world. When reports of Addison's departure from Pitt emerged, Slovis tweeted a photo of himself with the caption "Culture wins." The loyalty of a lot of players will be questioned, both loudly and quietly.

This fall, as many more NIL deals are struck and the details made public, the potential for locker-room envy will no doubt play a part in team chemistry at many programs.

"The average D-I Power 5 starter will be paid six figures or more," says Blake Lawrence, CEO of Opendorse, which works with many top athletic programs on NIL frameworks. "It'll be $10 million per year per campus. If you are a Power 5 starting quarterback, it'll be $500,000. It's bigger than you think; it's just not publicized."

Where does that literal arms race leave the lowly walk-on, or the backup who waits his turn? That's a question worth asking — especially considering that NIL deals may keep stars on campus for an extra year if the money is good. But there's another question worth asking, too: What happens if the biggest quarterback recruit falters? What does that do to his mindset?

Quarterback Spencer Rattler was benched midway through last season, and he ended up leaving Oklahoma for South Carolina. His earnings power (and his Instagram follower count) held up, but a lot of an athlete's brand is tied up in the promise of things yet to materialize. If there is an erosion of expectations, that can wear away at marketing potential over time.

Which brings us to the other wild card in the NIL fallout: the transfer portal. Just like the grass is always greener, the green is always greener. A transfer to a new campus brings plenty of untapped marketing opportunities. More than 3,000 players entered the transfer portal between last August and the start of 2022 alone, according to Axios. Clemson's Dabo Swinney called it "chaos" and "tampering galore."

It's a re-recruiting season, of sorts, and sometimes it gives way to a re-re-recruiting, as some athletes are entering the portal multiple times. That means the prized recruit that got away may never really get away, at least in the mind of the local car dealer.

If you think all this will cause unlimited angst and headaches for college coaches, you would be right. Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin has said that de facto "free agency" is already in place, and players will "go to where they get paid the most."

If social media followers bring in deals more than on-the-field performance, you can just imagine what kind of perverse incentives that will create among players who are already addicted to seeing their likes count skyrocket. Making matters worse (for the coaches anyway), the NIL recruiting process will start as early as the actual recruiting process starts — or even earlier.

And one of the questions recruits will have is: Does the school have a collective? That's a nifty name for a start-up company devoted to helping facilitate deals for athletes. The people behind the collectives can be anybody from superfans to business executives (or both).

"About one out of three Power 5 schools has a collective," says Lawrence. "Every Power 5 school, by the end of 2022, will have a collective."

Translation: Expect many more people to have skin in the game — for better or for worse.

But isn't this … um … just basically funneling money to the players? Technically, it can't be pay-to-play. The student-athlete must actually do something of value (whatever that is), and the actual school can't be tied to the collective. But then there are examples like an executive paying the tuition of BYU walk-ons. Isn't that pay-to-play? It depends on how you define it, and no one is quite sure yet how to define it.

And what happens if the collective has a collective opinion on who should be starting at quarterback?

"It will happen when there is a leader of a collective that disagrees with the head coach on the quarterback recruit — like the GM disagreeing with the head coach in the NFL," says Lawrence. "At the end of the day, that will be a challenge."

It all goes back to the shoot-first-ask-questions-later vibe of American capitalism and American football.

"Mistakes are gonna get made," says Peter Schoenthal, CEO of sports management company Athliance. "There will be athletes that overextend themselves. That will correct itself. We are all gonna learn from one another and our peers."

What might be lost here is not necessarily the games on the field, but rather something more intangible. These are supposed to be the best four years of your life, and there's no question that the pressure of football plus grades plus NIL requirements will take a toll on more than a few athletes.

"That might be a downfall," says Lawrence. "For most of these kids, it's the most important time in their life — making the most of their time as student-athletes."

— By Eric Adelson (@eric_adelson) for the Athlon Sports 2022 National College Football Annual.

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