What's the ideology of N.I.L.?
College football players should be fairly compensated for their work. But achieving that goal exclusively through NIL deals is bad for the sport.
There was a time when I would have cast any skeptic of NIL athlete compensation as retrograde or reactionary. And certainly there’s a subset of NIL opponents who would prefer that we never deviated from the 20th century model of amateurism. I’m never going to see eye-to-eye with those people because one of the main things I believe is that people should be fairly compensated for the work they do.
But there’s another group of NIL skeptics, among whose number I count myself, asking a different set of questions: What kind of change? How much change? How fast?
Maybe this sounds like nit-picking or boring minutiae, but the set of values we apply to designing player compensation models will affect how the sport changes. And any opposition I have to NIL — and I would venture to say the opposition most people have, whether they can articulate it or not — stems not from a reticence to see players paid for their work but from concern over the downstream consequences on the sport. Namely, massive roster turnover in pursuit of greener NIL pastures.
If you're a fan of a school like Boston College or Oregon State, you can't be certain if any player you follow will stick around for even two years. Your roster will turn over by 35% every single season, if not more. If over time, somebody decided that [made] it more challenging to maintain fan interest, I'd understand. I don't think that's irrational.
This current system is truly unlike anything else in the North American sports world.
The great cultural critic Neil Postman wrote that “every technology has an inherent bias. It has within its physical form a predisposition toward being used in certain ways and not others.”
The bias, or ideology, of the printing press is that the written word should be easily replicated and literacy should be accessible to entire populations — not just a learned elite. The ideology of the clock is that our days should be organized around hours, minutes, and seconds — not the rising and setting of the sun. The ideology of currency is that goods and services should be priced and exchanged for money — not given away for free or bartered for other goods and services.
With that definition of technology in mind, what is NIL but a technology for assigning value to and compensating college athletes?
What, then, is NIL’s ideology? What, then, are NIL’s biases? What does it predispose us toward?
An athlete’s most valuable asset is celebrity, not athletic prowess
NIL has proven, primarily, to be a mechanism for employing college athletes as advertising spokespeople — or, in the modern parlance, brand influencers. The brand influencer’s appeal is their ability to wield an elevated social profile to reach a desired audience and, having reached that audience, persuade them to purchase a product. With some exceptions, the more famous the spokesperson, the bigger the audience, the more value they’re generating for the client.
Naturally, such a system prizes players who play glamorous positions like quarterback, running back, and wide receiver. In fact, On3 explicitly codes this in to their estimated NIL valuations.
Athletes that attend universities with a larger fan base and media attention are likely to see a positive impact on valuation. Athletes who play a position with higher visibility (ie. quarterback vs. center) are likely to see a higher valuation.
And On3’s NIL rankings bear the fruits of this bias. Scrolling through their NIL 100, you pass 13 quarterbacks before you find the first offensive lineman, at No. 34. By comparison, the 2022 NFL Draft (a reasonably tidy ordinal ranking of perceived player value) saw just seven quarterbacks come off the board in the first 100 picks.
This seems a far cry from the meritocratic utopia that the most strident proponents of NIL would have us believe it is. In fact, when forced to produce a descriptor for the top of On3’s NIL 100, the best I can come up with is this: patrilineal oligarchy.
Athletes are individuals, not members of a team
In professional team sports, player salaries are a function of gate receipts, TV contracts, merchandise sales, sponsorship deals, and the various other mechanisms through which teams generate revenue. In the pro sports model, the more a team is able to raise its profile, the more money it has to pay its players. And in sports where teams share revenue, rising tides of public interest have the capacity to lift all boats.
But the rewards for collective achievement under NIL are merely incidental. That is, a player profits financially from his team’s success only to the extent that playing on a better team means playing before larger television audiences. And the benefits from a team’s success accrue disproportionately to quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers.
This disparity exists even though a quarterback’s success would not be possible without an offensive line good enough to give him time to throw. Even the pitiable starting left guard is overvalued, relatively speaking, because where would he be without backups and scout teamers to go up against in practice? The NIL model is completely unequipped to consider the value of players who will never be famous but whose work is nevertheless essential to the proper functioning of the team.
Athletes are gig workers, not employees
Imagine if baseball hall-of-famer George Brett had never taken a salary from the Kansas City Royals. That is, imagine if, under a compensation regime similar to NIL, the entirety of George Brett’s earnings came from whatever sponsorships his baseballing fame had won him. This would clearly have diminished Brett’s sense of loyalty to the Royals organization and would have increased the likelihood that Brett would have, at some point during his 21 MLB seasons, moved from Missouri to a state with larger media markets and more remunerative sponsorship opportunities. It would not seem a stretch to imagine a world in which players like Brett switched teams as easily as Uber and Lyft drivers switched between ridesharing apps — a decision based solely based solely on which company is, from one moment to the next, offering the more competitive rates.
If this hypothetical feels ludicrous, it’s only because the idea of paying players exclusively through advertising deals is itself ludicrous. If a player announced he was entering the transfer portal to pursue better NIL opportunities at another school, fans would doubtless begrudge him for displaying insufficient loyalty. But what would he guilty of, apart from using the system exactly as it was designed to be used?
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But here’s the good news: there are other ways to pay players. They are ways that don’t diminish the traditions we hold dear and might even reinforce them. All we have to do is change a bunch of state, federal, and NCAA laws.
NIL revenue sharing
When an athlete is successful, it is at least in part because others helped them. If a quarterback becomes a superstar, at least some of that money should be enjoyed by the teammates who made his good fortune possible. In fact, when NIL first started looking like a realistic possibility, I assumed revenue sharing would be a meaningful part of its eventual implementation. Apparently not!
Guarantee a minimum wage
The labor of college football players generates value for the university not necessarily reflected by their social media following. In fact, it’s pretty depressing that being extremely online seems to be prerequisite for most NIL deals. So instead of making them take on the extra work of cultivating an online persona, we should just pay them a minimum wage.
Pay returning players a loyalty bonus
Look, I don’t have a lot of specifics on this one. But I do know from playing Football Manager that loyalty bonuses are a thing in soccer contracts, and when I worked for CBS I had stock options that vested after a certain number of years with the company. I’m pretty confident some smart finance people could figure something out here.
The bottom line
It is an emotionally challenging time to be a college football fan. The sport is changing at a dizzying rate, and it’s hard to let go of the version of the sport we grew up loving. Some of the change is an inevitable result of the game becoming more just. But much of the problem is that we’ve landed ass-backward into a compensation model that doesn’t make very much sense.