The conventional wisdom in college football is that if (or when) the NCAA grants student-athletes the right to profit off their Name, Image and Likeness (NIL), the sport’s competitive balance will be destroyed.
Alabama, Clemson and a few other powers would just guarantee the biggest endorsement and advertising deals to the best recruits and thus sign them all. Everyone else would get scraps.
As it often is with college athletics, that conventional wisdom is completely wrong. NIL won't further tilt the playing field to the sport’s elite, it will actually flatten it out — a much-needed flattening, by the way.
Heading into the sixth year of the College Football Playoff, only five teams have ever won a playoff game and only three have won the national title.
Clemson. Ohio State. Alabama.
Clemson. Ohio State. Alabama.
Who ranked fourth? Try LSU, the No. 1 seed in this year’s playoff.
The playoff has separated the truly elite — toss Georgia and Oklahoma in there, too — from the very, very good (Texas, Auburn, Notre Dame, Penn State). A bigger playoff would help, but only so much. The gap right now is enormous and growing.
This season, both Clemson and Ohio State rolled through conference play unbeaten and barely tested. On Wednesday, Clemson signed the top seven recruits in the ACC. Ohio State got eight of the top 11 headed to the Big Ten.
Nothing’s changing. This is the supposed “parity” that college sports leadership believes should be protected at all costs? It’s like no one is actually paying attention.
You can’t blame the recruits. Talent wants to play with talent. The best players want to play on the best teams in the biggest games (playoff). Link up with other top recruits and you increase your chances of winning big while showcasing yourself to the NFL.
You want to know what would level that playing field, even to the point where it would make perfect sense for not just Michigan to beat Ohio State for a recruit, but Purdue or Illinois or even Boise State?
Name, image and likeness.
In other words, money, which is the great equalizer for pretty much everything in the United States of America. Only in this case, it’s money directly to a player.
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If a player can profit off his NIL, he can sell himself as an endorser to local or even national companies. Those companies will still have a fiduciary responsibility, so who knows how prevalent this would be, but it’s clear that the top players on any given team have real value in certain communities.
And that’s when this gets interesting.
Right now a few schools dominate because they get the best players. They have the best players because those players want to play for schools that dominate. They then sign and continue the domination. Rinse. Repeat.
The biggest advantage the elite have is tradition. They also spend like crazy on infrastructure — stadiums, facilities, staff, salaries — to protect that advantage by blocking out anyone else who would like to buy better stadiums, facilities, staff.
If the money can go directly to the players though, then it is far easier for a lesser program to bridge the divide. It would take years and hundreds of millions of dollars for Purdue to have equal, let alone superior, stuff to Ohio State. The Buckeyes enjoy a huge head start.
And even then, is that enough to win over a recruit?
Right now if a high school player is choosing between Ohio State and Purdue, he’ll almost always pick the Buckeyes. It's been that way for generations.
The hysteria against NIL is that if enacted, Ohio State would be able to dial up one of its local Ford dealers and have a recruit agree to a sponsorship/endorsement deal prior to signing to assure the recruit is well-paid while at OSU. If so, Purdue would be locked out.
Fine, but Purdue is currently all but locked out.
Besides, they also sell Fords in Indiana. It's not like Purdue doesn't have money. They have alums and fans that own businesses too. The program would have more than enough resources to smartly build a team.
It’ll come down to priorities. Ohio State is going to go all-in on its top recruits — five-stars that it will continue to battle over with Clemson, Alabama and others. That will likely continue.
What about for Ohio State’s 13th-best recruit? Or 20th-best recruit? Those guys are often still big-time, four-star prospects who would be crown jewels of a Purdue class (12 Ohio State signees rank ahead of Purdue's top-rated recruit this year). If the Boilermakers focus on that player, they could easily outbid OSU and plaster the kid on Ford dealership billboards all over the state.
Once you can make more money playing at Purdue than Ohio State — and being the star, rather than another cog in the machine should assure that — then all of a sudden there is a very compelling, and likely convincing, reason for the recruit to do what almost never happens now … choose the Boilermakers over the Buckeyes.
Suddenly that’s one more good player for Purdue and one less good player for Ohio State, closing the talent and depth gap that has allowed the best teams to pull away from the pack.
Now do this exercise over and over. It could be Purdue for this linebacker. It could be Michigan State for that running back. It could be like that everywhere for mid-level major conference programs — Ole Miss or Iowa State or Arizona State or Boston College or whatever.
Consider Boise State, which churns out winning teams each year but struggles to overcome its conference affiliation when going after top recruits. Allow the Broncos to tap into the corporate and booster money of its growing, prosperous nearly million person hometown (where Boise State football is the only game around) and it's a whole new world.
Booster and sponsor money becomes more impactful once it can go directly to players rather than a centralized athletic department fund.
It would allow Purdue or Boise or whomever to say to that Ford dealer, “Give this money, we get that four-star recruit,” rather than, “Give this money and maybe one day we upgrade the weight room and then maybe if we get a four-star recruit on campus for a visit, maybe he will be so impressed that he won’t immediately rule us out … ”
The latter isn’t working. It’s been tried for decades. The big schools aren’t just still winning everything, they are winning it even more decisively than in the past. The pecking order is nearly impossible to break.
The NIL can change that. The NIL will change that, no matter what college sports’ conventional wisdom keeps repeating.
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