Is NIL money an unwanted distraction for college football teams?
Today’s guest columnist is Michael H. Leroy.
If you had a million dollars ZERO as a college student, would you rather spend more time fulfilling the obligations of this deal, preparing for the next game, or (sigh) studying?
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During the college football offseason, Nick Saban hinted that Jimbo Fisher used a huge pot of ZERO money to recruit five-star players (Texas A&M ranked No. 1 among players graduating from high school in 2022). But 11 weeks into the 2022 college football season, Texas A&M looked like an overpaid team sitting at the bottom of the SEC. Alabama, with players boasting significant NIL deals, was also below expectations, finishing No. 8 in the AP poll.
The real story in college football this year is the surprise appearance of TCU, Liberty, Illinois, Kansas State, Tulane and Syracuse — all of whom were ranked by the AP in the AP Poll at some point in November — and none of them have of major deals that made national headlines.
Is it possible that players with fewer and fewer NIL deals will be able to focus better on the sport and develop good team chemistry? No single factor explains why some football teams win and others lose. Still, there may be some truth to the less-is-more NIL theory for college football in 2022.
I reviewed the 25 state NIL laws that were enacted by July 1, 2021, and ranked each law by the number of restrictions on athlete pay. Illinois had the most salary cap scores (45), ahead of second-place Arkansas (29) and Mississippi (28).
By early November, football teams in those states — Mississippi State, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Illinois — had more success than teams in states with NIL or less restrictive laws. Do these teams train better? Do they have more talent? Is their schedule easier? Or are their players less distracted by NIL deals and wealth?
My analysis (“Are players getting ZERO?”) to be published in University of Illinois Law Review, found that only two states—Illinois and Mississippi—would protect universities from tort or unfair competition claims in NIL transactions. These laws are legally problematic because they can raise antitrust issues in addition to the blockbuster antitrust suit requirement of NIL money for players who participated from 2016 to 2021 before the NCAA issued an interim NIL policy.
After all, who is the biggest competitive threat to a school that profits from marketing its logo and brand? He’s the school’s star athlete who could attract his own shoe deal, endorsement or similar.
Now think about NIL trades from the perspective of player agents. Would you seek business in Illinois and Mississippi knowing that if the school withdraws approval of a NIL deal or releases the player, your client will have no legal recourse against the school? NIL sponsors might think similarly: if the school intervened in the NIL deal, there would be no way to seek an injunction to stop the school from irreparably harming the sponsor’s commercial interests.
While my analysis views these situations as potential antitrust issues affecting athletes in Illinois and Mississippi, this could be a boon for the football programs. Their players may be less attractive in regional and national markets to NIL agents and sponsors, giving them fewer NIL opportunities — and more time to think about the game.
For highly marketable players, a constant flow of deals, dealing with agents and meeting NO deal commitments – performing or creating social media posts is just the beginning. With NIL, college athletes are also dealing with new tasks such as bookkeeping and filing tax returns.
And remember – these athletes are still required to attend classes. They must maintain a minimum GPA while holding down a full-time job as a soccer player.
I teach graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Because COVID-19 has changed their educational experience, they are experiencing more stress and achieving less academically than before the pandemic. My colleagues here and at other universities report similar experiences. But these students don’t have demanding athletic seasons, and they aren’t consumed by ANY trades.
At a Power Five university, it’s not hard to imagine that the teams with the richest NIL deals have athletes with shorter attention spans to devote to winning football.
Michael H. LeRoy, a professor at the University of Illinois, has published several collegiate sports law review articles and a book Collective Bargaining in Sports and Entertainment: Professional Skills and Business Strategies.
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