'What can I make in NIL?' SEC coaches bemoan lack of transparency as recruits take notice

Marc Weiszer
Athens Banner-Herald
SEC teams are represented outside the Hilton Sandestin in Destin, Fla. at the SEC meetings on Tuesday, May 31, 2022.

DESTIN, Fla. — Nine years ago, Aaron Murray tore his ACL in the final home game of his senior season and essentially opted out so he could cash in on his considerable fame as Georgia football’s star quarterback.

Murray, still the SEC’s career leader in touchdown passes and passing yards, signed autographs for $35 a pop at an event at the Georgia Square Mall in Athens and at another in Atlanta before the Bulldogs played in their bowl game and held a camp for $100 a participant working with Everett Sports Marketing (ESM).

“I was able to go out there and make some money, which was awesome,” he said.

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Now players considering coming to Georgia are talking to coach Kirby Smart about money they can make for their name, image and likeness on the front end before they even decide to play for the Bulldogs.

“I make a conscious effort to ask kids when they come in to meet, what’s the most important thing to you,” Smart said last week at the SEC spring meetings. “That’s certainly transitioned in recent years from kids would say playing time, kids would say the ability to win a championship, kids would say proximity to home, relationship with my coach. Now, a lot of times that revolves around what can I make in NIL?”

Murray is helping Georgia players now make money which is now permitted under NCAA interim guidelines put in place last summer after state legislatures passed NIL laws. The new era in college sports has created acrimony that spilled out in recent weeks with a war of words between national championship winning football coaches Nick Saban of Alabama and Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M fueled by Saban saying the Aggies bought players in their No. 1 ranked recruiting class.

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“The reality of the NIL space is there’s a lot of rumors and not a lot of disclosure,” Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz said.

“There’s a ton of grey area relative to what you can do, what you can’t do,” new Florida coach Billy Napier said. “There’s no manual, no parameters, no guidelines.…I’ve used the term we’re living in a land with no laws.”

Those comments reflect discussion about NIL in the coaches’ meeting Wednesday in Destin that SEC commissioner Greg Sankey called as “involved, deep and engaged as any I’ve ever experienced.”

Murray is co-CEO with former Georgia running back Keith Marshall of The Players’ Lounge, a web-based platform that connects fans to guys they see play on Saturdays through NFTs that give them access to message boards and live events.

Murray was at a dinner where 11 Georgia players were handed checks for $28,000 each for their NFTs. Another 45 to 50 players are paid with a set salary for their appearances on the Players’ Lounge Discord channel. Murray said about $350,000 total has been paid out so far from the platform.

Bulldog players are also cashing in through the Classic City Collective, where donors can contribute for NIL opportunities. It is run by former Georgia compliance staffer Matt Hibbs after Florida, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Texas set up their own collectives.

“The good ones are the ones where the kids are actually doing something where they’re actually engaging in the community, when they’re doing community service events,” Murray said. “When essentially the collective is acting as a marketplace where they are getting deals and then facilitating that and help brokering the deals for the players. Not somewhere where…they’re funneling money and just giving it to the players. I don’t agree with that at all. That is not what NIL should be about.”

Sankey wants players to take advantage of NIL, but not with boosters involved in recruiting. Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin called it “kind of crazy,” that schools are outsourcing NIL benefits to the free market under the current structure.

“Boosters have never been allowed to be a part of this, now all of a sudden it’s OK to have a collective?” new LSU coach Brian Kelly said. “This is my 32nd year of doing this, but now it’s OK? It just doesn’t make sense to me really.”

The NCAA board of directors tried to send a message last month to the enforcement staff that they should investigate NIL deals that they suspect run afoul of recruiting rules with boosters providing inducements to recruits.

“I think we’re at a critical juncture if we’re going to preserve what we all believe should be a collegiate model,” Georgia president Jere Morehead said.

Choosing a school based on “the highest bidder,” he said puts collegiate athletics in jeopardy.

NIL, he said, was intended for current players.

That’s along the lines of what current Georgia players will do when six from the team including tight end Brock Bowers, outside linebacker Nolan Smith and quarterback Gunner Stockton will be at an event at Kennesaw Mountain High School Saturday. They will hold a three-hour camp for $75 a participant including a player autograph. Or fans can take part at a postcamp photo and autograph signing with each player for $30.

When quarterback Spencer Rattler transferred from Oklahoma to South Carolina, coach Shane Beamer said he sold everything about the school, but had “zero,” conversation about NIL with Rattler and his father.

“He’s worked out some deals,” Beamer said. “On the front end, nothing.”

Conversations about NIL came up one or two times last June Beamer said.

 “Now it’s a question that gets brought up more often than before,” Beamer said.

Players now have agents which Kelly said makes it a “competitive marketplace,” and means more transparency is needed within conferences. Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said people around players tell them to talk to their coach saying “’This school is offering me this, what are you going to do?’ You have no way of verifying that.”

At Big Ten power Ohio State, coach Ryan Day told local business people last week that  about $13 million was needed to keep the Buckeyes' roster together ibeyond next season including $2 million for a top quarterback or players could transfer elsewhere for better deals, according to the Columbus Dispatch.

Napier noted how the SEC’s revenue distribution has exploded. Schools received $1.35 million in 1990 and received $54.6 million this year.

“It’s foolish to say the players don’t deserve a piece of the pie,” Napier said. “If there’s no players in the stadium, nobody’s showing up to watch and they’re certainly not watching on TV.”

Smart said NIL is good for the best players and those who are the most marketable.

“What it’s become is probably not sustainable and probably not good for college football,” Smart said. “The fix is how do we get it where it’s good for both.”

Sankey visited with lawmakers on Capitol Hill along with Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, but college athletic leaders have been waiting for a year for legislators to act already.

Byrne said finding a solution for the issues in NIL aren’t easy, especially with the possibility of litigation.

“I don’t know at this point whether it can be solved in a few days in Destin,” he said. “There’s a lot of moving parts that we have to be very respectful of that you don’t end up getting more litigation added to it because of a rash, quick decision.”

Stricklin said the transformation committee looks like it will push decision-making down to the conference level.

“You’re going to see the stronger conferences continue to get stronger and stronger,” he said. “We’re going to have some autonomy to make some decisions.

How that will affect benefits including NIL remains to be seen.

“Maybe each conference comes up with what they’re going to do from a benefits standpoint,” he said. “It might look different from one conference to the next just like states are making their own rules. …Those are things we’ll have to roll up our sleeves and figure out.”