'I think there's going to be a lot of chaos.' NIL to provide opportunities and challenges

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

Eleven years ago, five Ohio State football players took advantage of their celebrity for financial benefit.

The ensuing tattoo-and-memorabilia scandal brought the program to its knees. Coach Jim Tressel was forced to resign, the Buckeyes suffered through a losing season in 2011, and the NCAA put Ohio State on probation while issuing a postseason ban that denied the undefeated 2012 team a chance for the national title.

How the college sports world has changed. Effective Thursday, college athletes became eligible – heck, encouraged – to profit from their names, images and likenesses.

Daniel “Boom” Herron was one of the Tattoogate players. He had a pithy take on the change last year when it became clear that NIL was soon to be reality.

“Scandal is the new normal,” he said with a laugh.

Ohio State football players, from left,  DeVier Posey, Mike Adams, Boom Herron, Terrelle Pryor and Solomon Thomas address the media on Dec. 28, 2010. The players were suspended by the NCAA  for selling championship rings, jerseys and awards, and receiving improper benefits from a tattoo parlor. Today, their actions would be allowed. “Scandal is the new normal,” Herron said.

NCAA, Ohio State athletics adjusting to new NIL rules

The Wild West is upon us. Rules that have been in place for generations preventing college athletes from monetizing their personal brand are falling away. Even the NCAA has essentially thrown up its hands after losing a series of court cases and is adopting policies that give the green light after it acted like a stern traffic cop all these years.

There are some limits. Endorsements for gambling, tobacco or alcohol businesses are prohibited, for example. Athletes must notify their schools about endorsements.

But if a car dealer wants to pay an athlete a million dollars for an endorsement, that’s fair game. If a company wants to pay a player for a retweet or Instagram message, it’s all good.

Such unbridled opportunity might seem rife for “unscrupulous characters,” as Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith acknowledged last week at a hearing in front of the state House of Representatives committee considering the Ohio NIL bill last week.

But Smith said he looks at the positives of providing financial opportunities for athletes rather than dwelling on what can go wrong with those unscrupulous characters.

“I'm not that concerned about it,” he said. “First and foremost, we focus on us and what we do and how we do things and what's important to us. What's important to us is, one, making sure our student-athletes own their integrity. In life, you own your own integrity. As soon as you step into that other box, you lose it. You give it away. You make that choice.

“I get kind of passionate about that. That's the lesson that we're trying to teach. Now, other places are going to cheat. They're going to cheat. I can't control that.”

Gene Smith: 'I can tell you the schemes. There will be new schemes'

Smith played for Notre Dame in the 1970s and has been an athletic director since 1986. He knows college sports have never been squeaky clean.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith

“I've been doing this for 99,000 years, it seems like,” he said. “I can tell you the schemes. There will be new schemes. But why would I cheat a (Buckeyes defensive end) Zach Harrison because 2% of our population cheat? I can't do that. I can't look into Haskell Garrett's eyes, who's trying to do it right, and say, ‘We can't do this because that guy over there is cheating.’ I can't do that. It's not right.”

How much will Ohio State players make? 'Market-driven world'

Estimating how much players can make is purely guesswork. OSU star football players, it would seem, could make a pretty gaudy amount. Opendorse, the company that has contracted with Ohio State for NIL deals, estimated that former Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields could have earned more than $1.3 million on social media alone.

Ohio State president Kristina Johnson was asked how she’d feel about it if Fields had been able to make that much capitalizing on his fame.

“It's a market-driven world we're in, that we believe in, and I would have been very comfortable,” she said.

As much as they support star athletes making a windfall, Johnson and Smith said the opportunity for lower-profile athletes to earn income is particularly exciting. Other than football and basketball players, most Division I athletes are not on full scholarships. Smith said that those who aren't graduate with an average of $11,000 in student loan debt. A golfer or tennis player can now hold clinics or camps to make money to defray that debt.

By virtue of playing for an elite program located in a major metropolitan area, Ohio State is ideally positioned for its players to benefit from NIL opportunities.

“I'm not going to say that Ohio State is best positioned (nationally), but I think it's well-positioned,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College and an expert on the business of college sports.

Zimbalist has long been a critic of the NCAA, believing that it has unfairly and hypocritically constrained athletes’ rights. He is in favor of NIL rights, but he has concerns, especially in the short term.

“I think there's going to be a lot of chaos,” Zimbalist said.

NIL could impact athletic departments

He believes many companies that have sponsored college teams will shift their investment directly to players.

“But most significantly, what's going to happen, I believe, is that the NCAA is going to be reluctant to carry out any guardrails or any enforcement of the process for fear of an antitrust suit,” Zimbalist said. “That means that the prohibition on inducements to attend a university or to stay at the university, even though the NCAA is saying that won't be allowed, they won't have the wherewithal to regulate that.”

Zimbalist said the NCAA is already facing two new anti-trust lawsuits in the  9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals seeking back pay related to NIL.

“The NCAA, as I understand it from some inside sources, is basically unable to pay its lawyers right now," he said. "They're teetering on the brink, and they're not going to be able to afford more litigation. So they're going to lay back, and when they lay back, the wildness of the marketplace will fill the gap.”

Johnson, who was a field hockey player at Stanford, has come to believe that NIL rights are long overdue. She is also an inventor with more than 100 patents. Johnson said universities for which she worked encouraged her to commercialize that intellectual property.

She said NIL is “no different than our faculty and staff that invent and use their intellectual property.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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