When Nick Saban speaks, the nation notices.
This week, when asked how name, image and likeness (NIL) policies have impacted college football recruiting, the Alabama coach and seven-time national champion told the Associated Press: “I don’t think what we’re doing right now is a sustainable model.”
Indeed, NIL laws – which were instituted on July 1, 2021 – were intended to allow college athletes to profit via autograph sales, sponsored social media posts, personal streaming channels, training lessons/camps, speaking engagements, promotional appearances, personal merchandise, endorsement deals and more.
They were not intended to enable donors to buy recruits.
Specifically, the NCAA’s policy includes a “commitment to avoid pay-for-play and improper inducements tied to choosing to attend a particular school.”
But without effective enforcement, NIL payouts have become an undeniably powerful recruiting tool.
“That creates a situation where you can basically buy players. You can do it in recruiting,” Saban said. “I mean, if that’s what we want college football to be, I don’t know.”
Last month, The Athletic reported that an anonymous five-star recruit in the 2023 class had signed an NIL agreement that could pay him more than $8 million by the end of his junior year – in exchange for public appearances, social media promotions and more.
For blue-chip prospects – such as five-star Rainier Beach offensive lineman Josh Conerly Jr., who was widely expected to choose USC before committing to Oregon last week – NIL enticements may represent a tipping point in the recruiting process.
So, in that landscape, how can Washington compete?
“From a year ago to where (NIL) is at now, I’m sure there’s a lot of things that we never imagined it would be,” UW football coach Kalen DeBoer said Friday. “I’m sure it’ll change in the next six to 12 months as well. We probably don’t know what it’s going to be a year from now.
“You’ve got to adjust and just continue to stay the course and do what’s right. The word ‘sustainable’ is probably a good one to question: is it or not? It seems like at the pace it’s going, I think at the pace right now, there’s a lot of places where it would be hard (to compete). If you do things right and build a good foundation – in our case, what we have around us – it can be sustainable.”
Particularly if your program is aided by an “NIL collective” – donor-funded companies founded to generate NIL deals for a university’s athletes – such as Montlake Futures (UW), Division Street (Oregon), Rising Spear (Florida State), Happy Valley Talent (Penn State), The Foundation Ohio (Ohio State), High Tide Traditions (Alabama) and many more.
“Whatever casual sports fans or coaches think student-athletes are earning from collectives, they’re (undershooting) by 10X,” Blake Lawrence, founder of NIL marketing platform Opendorse, told The Athletic last month. “While $2 million (a year) is wild, $200,000 isn’t, but most people are thinking they’re getting $20,000.”
As that relates to the recruiting landscape, USC coach Lincoln Riley lamented to the Los Angeles Times last week that NIL has “completely changed it. In every sense of the word, it’s different.”
Likewise, DeBoer added that NIL “is a part of pretty much every conversation (with recruits) in some form or fashion. It’s changed the landscape a lot. Hopefully we can get back to where our current team and roster is what the intent was for, where they can take advantage of it. I’m all for that happening. You said the word sustainable. We need to make sure it can continue to be that way.”
There’s also concern that particularly invested donors could soon influence rosters in even more significant ways. Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin told the Associated Press that “there’s going to start being issues potentially of donors and collective groups saying they want Player A from their area. And the coaching staff wants Player B.”
The hope, for many current coaches, is that regulations emerge to remove NIL inducements from college football recruiting.
But once that door opens, it’s difficult to close.
“There was no doubt it was going to seep into recruiting at some point,” Riley said. “I think anybody that cares about college football is not real pleased with that because that wasn’t the intention; we all get that. A lot of people voiced concerns when NIL came up that there had to be a plan for that, and instead we instituted NIL without any plan for that, so that’s why we’re at where we’re at.
“I’m sure at some point there’s going to be a market correction, if you will, with recruiting. Hopefully there will be, because in a perfect world they stay separate.”
Still, when the subject of NIL is raised by recruits, DeBoer said, “we want to be up front and we want to be aggressive in sharing with them that those opportunities exist here too.”
For now, that’s all DeBoer can do.
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