NIL – Name, Image, and Likeness. Three letters and three words that are currently roiling the foundations of college football and spurring the latest remaking of the conference landscape. Just the mention of those letters or words starts off heated debates, along with hand-wringing, teeth-gnashing, and any other fill-in-the-blank physical manifestation you wish.
What should have been a straightforward but at the same time revolutionary step forward for college athletes was quickly bastardized by a certain percentage of greedy, egomaniacal boosters, agents, parents, handlers, and players into the current chaotic mess. It’s the Wild West for “procuring” the best talent – “procuring” in the sense of $$$$$$ as opposed to obtaining by legitimate means following the rules. NIL is a “pay-for-play” exercise now for too many people involved in the recruiting process.
The NCAA essentially created this mess, stubbornly exploiting kids for decades while making obscene profits, and the member schools are also to blame for backing up the NCAA and collecting massive television rights money. Once the NCAA finally capitulated, knowing they would be crushed in the courts (as usual), they further screwed things up by kicking the can down the road – allowing individual states to write and enact their own laws, with zero continuity. This created an uneven playing field between conferences and schools – with Florida immediately feeling the pain.
Florida football has been essentially ground zero for all of the travails that have followed NIL – especially since recruiting has been the full focus since spring practice ended. The Gators have already lost some elite players to other rivals – the most notable being QB Jaden Rashada to the Miami Ruizes, er, Hurricanes, CB AJ Harris to Georgia, and CB Tony Mitchell to Alabama. Miami “businessman” and lawyer John Ruiz has been blatantly flaunting the state of Florida’s NIL Law, publicly admitting he’s buying recruits away from the Gators to the Canes – Rashada being the biggest name. Harris was a long-time strong lean to Florida, then suddenly takes a trip to Georgia, and – just like that – commits to the Dawgs and talks of being ‘home’ and “stacking money”. Mitchell was also a strong lean to Florida, then takes a trip to Alabama and commits. Mitchell Sr. completely pulled back the curtain in a tweet that says Florida is “not making a big enough effort on the ‘business end’ of NIL” – a transparent money grab, exploiting his son’s athletic talent.
Billy Napier is maintaining the company line that Florida will follow the rules and not tie in any “signing bonuses” that other schools are using to entice high school players or some in the transfer portal. He stresses that the Florida program will concentrate on the players already on the roster, and eventually those that sign with the Gators. That position has stirred up it’s own firestorm of arguments and infighting between Gator fans that are on the side of the law vs. those that are worried that the talent gap will continue to widen and drag Florida down into consistent mediocrity, and want the Gators to do what the usual suspects are doing. Adding insult to injury, Darren Heitner, a Florida graduate and lawyer, is the person that drafted most of the state of Florida’s laws that are handcuffing the new staff.
So much for simply “helping kids out” by allowing them to take advantage of their name, image, or likeness based on their perceived market by others. NIL is just a cover for the previously-hidden bagmen to come out into the light and laugh at laws and dare the inept NCAA to do anything about their illegal actions. There are some that say that the market will settle in a few years, or that locker rooms (like the appropriately-named aTm or Miami) will fracture once highly-paid kids either don’t play, underperform on the field, if/when payments are missed, or (even more naively) that the NCAA will crack down and create uniformity. Meanwhile, Napier, his coaching staff, and his recruiting army are in a death struggle to put together a competitive recruiting class while certain schools “procure” elite talent and pull farther ahead.
What will be the endgame? No one knows for sure if the state laws will be amended to give Florida more flexibility in making it’s recruiting pitch. Even if that happens, how many recruiting classes will they have been working at a disadvantage? No one can question the work ethic of Napier, his coaches, or the recruiting staff. They are professional, kids and families like them, and they connect with recruits. But it’s tough to watch them get cut off at the knees trying to sign elite players after all of their hard work is unrewarded in the immediate time frame. Perhaps some of those same kids will eventually wind up at Florida a year or two from now for various reasons?
Finally, USC and UCLA, through television partner FOX, reached out to the Big 10/11/12/13/14/whatever and quickly moved to leave the LAC-12, stabbing their fellow schools in the back. This has prompted wide speculation that the Big whatever will continue to expand, and that the SEC will accelerate it’s efforts to offset this latest move. There are a handful of schools in the ACC, along with Notre Dame, that are certainly getting phone calls right now to start the ball rolling. I certainly would like to see well-regarded schools like North Carolina and Virginia on speed dial from Greg Sankey’s SEC office.
This drama is not going away anytime soon, and it certainly gives everyone that follows college athletics much to talk about through the summer. Before you know it, the regular season will be upon us. That is an entirely different subject for discussion – how well can Napier and the new staff coach up a broken team? Florida football is never a dull subject.
Until then……Go Gators!