Southern Methodist University’s football team received the NCAA “death penalty” in 1987 for paying thirteen players a total of $180,000 in today’s money in 1985 and 1986 through a slush fund created by an alum. SMU’s 1987 season was canceled by the NCAA and the team was unable to field a team in 1988 as well. The program has yet to recover.
Today, John Ruiz, a University of Miami alum, boasts on Twitter about the $5 million that his medical record company LifeWallet is paying out to 100 college athletes in the Miami area. Yet everything that Ruiz is doing is legal. Duke basketball has hired a former Nike executive to be the program’s general manager in charge of facilitating six-figure Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) deals for teenagers.
In The Future of Youth Sports, we predicted that California’s 2019 “N.I.L.” legislation allowing college athletes to profit from use of their name, image and likeness would wreak massive disruption throughout college sports and would combine with other factors to pose an existential threat to the NCAA.
At the time, it was almost universally seen as the way to fix the injustice of college players going uncompensated for their efforts while schools raked in billions in broadcast and sponsorship deals. Just three years later, coaches of major football programs are feeling it necessary to plead with the local business owners of Tuscaloosa, Columbus and College Station to raise eight figures annually just to keep their rosters intact.
National signing day is the most important 24 hours of the year for every college football program. Across the country, 17- and 18-year-olds sit in their high school gyms flanked by their family and friends as they get set to pick up one of five hats that’ll determine where they play for the next three to five years.
Flash forward to 2027. Those kids won’t be choosing a hat based on a spread offense vs. a power running attack or a city vs. a small college town. Instead they’ll be choosing between whichever local businessman emptied out the most of their retirement fund to secure the best defensive end in the country. Once they arrive at college, they’ll make their smaller deals with the local car salesman and pizza shop, but that won’t be why they came. The boosters who have always lurked behind the scenes in college football and basketball now proudly show their faces and flaunt their NIL deals through phony companies that have no funding but can somehow buy houses and cars for kids who still sleep in twin beds. Programs will have to hire entire departments to manage and coordinate their star players’ deals, and soon Alabama football will more resemble the New England Patriots in structure than they do Colorado State.
Even the largest athletic programs in the country are vulnerable to the landslide of major NIL deals and shell companies like Ruiz’s MSP Recovery, which, while losing 60 percent of its stock value in its first hour on the market, still made Ruiz a billionaire. He and other wealthy businessmen will continue to be able to pour money into massive NIL deals to strengthen their former schools’ athletic programs. At the highest level of college athletics, NIL deals have become a way to legitimize once-shadowy booster syndicates—and while at least it’s now in the open, that doesn’t change the perils of failing to regulate them.
Legalized pay-for-play isn’t the only thing threatening the integrity of college sports. Online sports betting on college football generates hundreds of millions annually for sportsbooks, and while measures have been taken to ban betting on in-state colleges, loopholes persist. If an avid Illinois football fan wanted to place a wager on the spread of the next game, he’d be unable to do so within the borders of Illinois. Yet a simple drive across the state border into lovely Indiana would allow him to both place such a bet and buy a firearm.
The real danger for college athletics posed by online gambling? The same boosters who have become so invested in NIL. Letting businessmen hand money to teenagers to promote their interests opens the door for the stakeholders of the sports betting world to exert pressure on those same teenagers.
This isn’t a fairytale story set twenty years in the future—it’s one that currently committed high schoolers will have to face if the understaffed NCAA enforcement division continues to lag on regulating NIL and booster syndicates. For the foreseeable future, Division I college athletes will have to deal with the pressure of managing thousands of dollars in endorsements and the nonstop attention of the boosters filling their bank accounts in addition to playing a sport, and—just imagine, academics!—all before they can legally drink.