I'll believe NIL guardrails are needed when athletes like Hendon Hooker say so | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

If we are to believe countless college football coaches, athletics directors and conference commissioners who decry the lack of federal governance over athletes’ name, image and likeness, the sport is in dire need of uniform guardrails.

Politicians are reacting to the call for help. Senators from both sides of the aisle vow to pursue NIL legislation, although previous efforts failed to gain traction.

If you follow politics even casually, you know the challenge of aligning 60 senators in agreement, allowing legislation to navigate past the filibuster. So, I’m skeptical Congress will do much more than direct a few soundbites at one of its favorite punching bags, the NCAA, while not passing any substantial law.

And I remain unconvinced a need exists for federal legislation.

Coaches and administrators claim they have athletes’ best interests in mind, but what are the athletes actually saying? After all, athletes’ lives were most directly affected by the NCAA finally admitting defeat last year and allowing players to be compensated for use of their NIL.

"I feel like we should be able to get the most out of (NIL) that we can," Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker said last month at SEC Media Days. "At the end of the day, it's our name, our image, our likeness, so I don't see why there should be a limit on that.

"I feel like it's a great thing for us to be able to go through this and venture out and learn things that we're interested in – not just football, but our business and putting us in a business man's mindset early on in life."

Athletes like Hooker aren't demanding guardrails, even as it pertains to deals affecting recruiting.

“If I was coming (out of high school), I would want to get paid, too,” Hooker said. “There’s some guys that are special out here that have earned that."

“I would say take advantage of that, young guys,” Hooker added, “and continue to work hard.”

Graphic image of a children's book created by Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker and North Carolina A&T quarterback Alston Hooker.

Hooker shines as an example of everything good about NIL. He and his brother, Alston, authored a faith-inspired children’s book, “The ABC’s of Scripture for Athletes,” with a goal of encouraging their cousin to read more. Thanks to last year’s NIL rule change, Hooker can profit off his work without fear of NCAA retribution.

Recruiting inducements didn't start with NIL

Few people within college athletics are promoting guardrails that would keep Hooker from profiting off his book or prevent college athletes from inking endorsement deals with companies. Permitting business opportunities between college athletes and third parties is what NIL was intended to do.

Much of the grumbling is centered on booster-funded collectives and pay-for-play recruiting inducements disguised as NIL deals.

While I don’t like the idea of a high school athlete choosing their college based on a recruiting inducement, I also know recruiting inducements didn't start with NIL. Anyone who heard the FBI’s wiretap of former LSU basketball coach Will Wade discussing his “strong-ass offer” to a recruit knows that.

Or, check out the NCAA’s notice of allegations that accused former Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt of serving the twin role of coach/bag man and funneling cash to athletes, while Pruitt’s wife allegedly dished out rent and vehicle payments. Their alleged misconduct occurred before NIL deals were allowed.

NIL eliminates the need for a middleman. No longer is a bag man, a staff underling or a coach’s wife needed to connect a deal. Boosters and athletes now do business directly. This peels back control from coaches who crave omnipotence.

College sports leaders chase dollars over athletes' well-being

University leaders forfeited the right to claim they foremost want to protect athletes when they voted to put UCLA and Southern Cal in the same conference as Rutgers.

Think the volleyball player who will fly from Los Angeles to New Jersey for a midseason conference match will believe her university president makes decisions with athletes’ well-being or education in mind? 

I also don't buy the warning that college sports are approaching a bleak future. The Big Ten is finalizing a media rights deal that reportedly will be worth more than $1 billion annually.

Old-fashioned amateur athletics died in favor of this fat hog.

Interestingly, college sports leaders aren’t clamoring for federal guardrails to curb coaches’ seven- and eight-figure annual salaries. They haven’t asked Congress to referee conference realignment. 

For years, the NCAA failed to modernize NIL rules. Finally, state legislatures forced its hand by passing laws forbidding the NCAA from prohibiting college athletes from profiting off their NIL.

This put athletes on level footing with the marching band’s tuba player, the soprano in the glee club or your Starbucks barista, all of whom were always allowed to profit off their NIL.

The Supreme Court offered the NCAA no relief with its 9-0 Alston decision last summer that delivered another blow to the NCAA’s cling to outdated amateurism policies.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh dug in the knife, dubbing the NCAA “a massive money-raising enterprise” built “on the backs of student-athletes who are not fairly compensated.”

“Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate,” Kavanaugh wrote in his concurring opinion.

Tommy Tuberville to the rescue? Please, no

Plenty of mealy mouthed coaches say they support athletes profiting off their NIL – right before they describe all the things they don’t like about it.

Speaking at the Texas High School Coaches Association convention in July, Georgia coach Kirby Smart reportedly said he felt uncomfortable with a college athlete earning $120,000 annually.

“What do you think he's doing with that? Is that actually gonna make him more successful in life?” Smart said, according to ESPN.

Never mind that Smart works at an institution of higher learning, which could, you know, educate athletes on money management.

I don’t know the appropriate NIL amount for a Georgia football player. Let the market decide. What I do know is, days after Smart’s remarks, he received a 10-year contract that will pay him $10.25 million this season before his salary increases to $12.25 million by the final year of the deal.

Put differently, if a Georgia player earned $120,000 in NIL deals this year, he'd make just more than 1% of Smart’s salary. Still, I haven’t heard players criticize Smart’s deal or question how he’ll manage his wealth.

Other prominent coaches, like Clemson's Dabo Swinney and Alabama's Nick Saban, have joined Smart in expressing squeamishness over some aspects of NIL.

One former longtime college coach, when asked last summer whether athletes should be paid, said this: 

“Nobody's going hungry as a college athlete,” the former coach told TMZ Sports in June 2021.

That former coach is Tommy Tuberville, and he's now a U.S. Senator.

Tuberville, after a nudge from his pals, has vowed to introduce a bill erecting federal NIL guardrails.

“I’ve talked to all my (coaching) buddies. They’ve never seen anything like it,” Tuberville told Sports Illustrated. “When you don’t have guidelines and direction, no matter what you are doing, you are lost.”

If guardrails are needed, then I'd rather hear from the athletes like Hooker, because I don’t believe Tuberville and his coaching buddies will put athletes’ interests first while they brainstorm guardrails.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.