By Dr. Barry Shollenberger  |  02/13/2024

NIL has changed college sports


College football is at a crossroads. On one hand, it is riding a crest of unprecedented popularity and financial gain. The sport has never been stronger in terms of fan interest and support, media acclaim, and financial considerations.

However, on the other hand, a player's name, image, and likeness (NIL), the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Transfer Portal, and opt-outs threaten the foundation of college football. Finding a comprehensive and lasting solution will require far-reaching innovations.


What Is NIL? 

As the world of college sports stands at a pivotal juncture, it's crucial to understand the concepts of Name, Image, and Likeness, the NCAA Transfer Portal, and opt-outs. They have been the primary driving forces in reshaping college athletics.

Name, Image, and Likeness refers to the rights of college athletes to monetize their personal brand while still maintaining their amateur status. To aid players, various legislative bodies and the NCAA created NIL legislation. As a result of this legislation, a school's student athletes can earn money when they participate in endorsement deals, create a strong social media presence to monetize their personal brand, and establish personal business ventures.

In the past, student-athletes were strictly prohibited from profiting in this manner, which led to contentious debates in most schools about fairness and exploitation within college sports. NIL opportunities have opened a new era where athletes can benefit financially from their fame and hard work.


What Is the NCAA Transfer Portal in University Football?

The NCAA Transfer Portal is an online database that allows NCAA athletes to transfer schools and immediately inform other schools of their interest in switching. This database, established to promote mobility and streamline the athlete transfer process, has led to an arms race for student-athletes seeking to find programs that better fit their academic, athletic, or personal needs.

The use of this database contrasts sharply with previous regulations. Before the NCAA Transfer Portal existed, male and female athletes were bound to their initial choice of institution, sometimes to the detriment of their careers or education.


What Are Opt-Outs?

Opt-outs have become a notable trend, particularly in the context of football bowl games and other sports events. This term refers to the decision of top athletes or other athletes to forego participation in certain games or seasons, often to prepare for professional drafts or avoid the risk of injury.

The use of opt-outs underscores a growing awareness among athletes of their long-term career prospects and health. Opt-outs challenge the traditional expectation of unwavering commitment to collegiate team obligations, regardless of personal cost.

These developments undoubtedly present numerous advantages for the vast majority of student-athletes, offering unprecedented opportunities for personal and financial growth. However. a broader perspective reveals a more complex narrative.


How Do NIL, the NCAA Transfer Portal, and Opt-Outs Affect College Sports?

NIL, the NCAA Transfer Portal, and opt-outs – although beneficial on the surface to athletes – introduce a set of challenges and unintended consequences that ripple through the entire ecosystem of college sports. They necessitate a careful examination of how NIL, the NCAA Transfer Portal, and opt-outs impact team dynamics, the traditional model of collegiate sports, and the long-term sustainability of college sports.

College athletics is navigating through uncharted waters, grappling with issues of equity, cohesion, and the amateurism that has long defined its spirit. This situation calls for a balanced approach that safeguards the interests of student-athletes while preserving the integrity and competitive balance of college sports.

Here are four of the most significant challenges confronting college sports – specifically football – due to Name, Image, and Likeness, the NCAA Transfer Portal, and opt-outs.


1. Disruption of Team Cohesion and Dynamics

NIL: The disparities in earning potential among teammates can lead to jealousy or resentment, potentially fracturing team unity. High-profile players might command more attention and resources, overshadowing team achievements with individual pursuits.

NCAA Transfer Portal: With players more readily transferring to other teams for better opportunities or financial incentives, teams may struggle with continuity and cohesion. The ease of transferring can lead to a “free agent” mindset, where loyalty to the team and long-term development within a program are devalued.

Opt-outs: Key players opting out of bowl games or entire seasons to prepare for the NFL draft or avoid injury risk can demoralize teams and affect performance. Opt-outs can undermine the collective commitment to team goals, particularly in high-stakes games.

2. Challenges to Traditional Recruiting and Development Models

NIL: Recruiting battles for student-athletes may increasingly hinge on the potential for NIL earnings, shifting focus from athletic development and academic fit to financial benefits. Schools with smaller athletic programs may not have the means to facilitate lucrative NIL deals, altering the competitive balance.

NCAA Transfer Portal: Coaches must navigate not only the recruitment of high school athletes, but also the constant management of their rosters against transfers. This dual focus can dilute the traditional model of developing players over their college careers.

Opt-outs: The prevalence of opt-outs might deter coaches from investing in players perceived as likely to leave teams early. That could impact decisions on scholarships and playing time and potentially alter recruitment strategies.

3. Potential Erosion of the Amateurism Model

NIL: While NIL rules aim to compensate student-athletes fairly for their name, image, and likeness, the influx of money risks blurring the lines between amateur and professional sports. It also challenges the foundational principles of college athletics.

NCAA Transfer Portal and opt-outs: By emphasizing individual choice and professional preparation over collegiate team loyalty and participation, the NCAA Transfer Portal and opt-outs further strain the amateur ethos. They reflect a shift towards a more transactional relationship between athletes and their programs.

4. Increased Administrative and Compliance Complexity

NIL: Institutions must navigate complex legal and compliance issues to ensure athletes and programs adhere to NIL legislation without compromising eligibility or violating NCAA rules.

NCAA Transfer Portal: Managing the NCAA Transfer Portal requires additional resources to monitor potential transfers, maintain roster stability, and comply with evolving regulations.

Opt-outs: Schools programs must develop policies to address opt-outs, balancing support for athlete decisions with the need to maintain competitive rosters.

Solutions for Sustainable Change in College Football

Name, Image, and Likeness, the NCAA Transfer Portal, and opt-outs have all contributed to a system that may need a radical overhaul. The NCAA is simply unable to regulate college football as it exists today. 

College presidents, athletic administrators, and athletic directors of the Power 4-Big 65 schools must collaborate. They must create a new and cooperative organization that will be responsible for governing collegiate football like a professional league.

A strong commissioner will be needed to guarantee that the new rules are followed carefully. This commissioner must have a strong football background, exceptional organizational and administrative skills, and the respect of the football community.

A few possible candidates for the commissioner position might be:

  1. Joe Castiglione – A highly successful athletic director at the University of Oklahoma.
  2. Ken Niumatalolo – A former head football coach at the Naval Academy with impeccable peer respect.
  3. David Shaw – A former Stanford head football coach who is also highly respected by the coaching community.
  4. Nick Saban – A recently retired football coach from the University of Alabama and an outspoken enemy of NIL, the NCAA Transfer Portal and opt-outs in football today.


A Financial Framework for Student Athletes

It will be necessary to create a workable financial framework for the future of football at the college level.

For example, football players in the Power 4-Big 65 could be treated as employees of their respective universities, which means compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) will become paramount. By ensuring that student-athletes’ compensation, working hours, and overall treatment meet federal labor standards, that would mark a significant shift towards making amateur football more professional while adhering to fair labor practices.

It would also be necessary to create a new football league, which would include these NCAA teams:

  • Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC)
  • Big 10 Conference
  • Big 12 Conference
  • Southeastern Conference (SEC)
  • Notre Dame (an independent team that does not belong to a conference)

In this new financial framework, all players will sign contracts. Each student athlete would receive a salary, benefits, and high-level health and career insurance policies. In addition, these players would be allowed to bargain collectively.

Salaries for these players would come from individual schools’ football profit-sharing and National Football League (NFL) grant supplements. There would also be subsidies from the six largest football bowl games – involving the College Football Playoff (CFP) tournament that governs the playoffs – and the revenue generated from the mega TV package that is sure to come from the networks and streaming services.

University profit-sharing would be based on each institution’s total football revenue. Smaller revenue schools may be subsidized by their more lucrative partners, if necessary.

The goal is to ensure uniformity for each program and eliminate an uneven playing field so that athletic departments deal with the same amount of money for player salaries. These salaries will be standardized according to the status of the players’ year in school.

The National Football League would be required to raise money to help support the new salary system. In exchange, NFL teams will be given increased access to player information, draft assignments, better access of college players through the draft combine structure, and increased “senior day” workouts for senior players leaving the team.

The NFL has benefited for 100 years from colleges being its “farm system” in developing young players. This organization should be willing to help pay for the football training that colleges provide.

The six largest football bowls (Rose, Sugar, Cotton, Orange, Fiesta, and Peach) already provide funds as they benefit from the top-tier teams participating each year in their games. Through the CFP tournament, the national champion in collegiate football is determined each year. 

The CFP will be guaranteed, per the players’ contracts, that “opt-outs” will no longer be allowed.

Revenue from TV broadcasting of collegiate football is already in the billions for the Power 4-Big 65 institutions as evidenced by the Big 10's seven-year, seven-billion TV contracts with FOX®, CBS®, and NBC®.

With consolidation into the new football system, long-term financing will help provide player salaries and other league expenses. Streaming services such as YouTube®, Sling®, DirectTV®, Peacock®, and Paramount+® may also provide additional TV revenue for the new alliance.

NIL will continue as before but closely regulated by the Commissioner’s Office. A salary cap will be necessary so that all schools will be able to supply an equal amount of funds for NIL.


Academic Standards in the New System for College Athletics

Student-athletes will be allowed to accept athletic scholarships, but they will be afforded an optional educational program. They could elect to earn a “college-training certificate” and attend classes and seminars where they can learn life skills, financial planning, agent selection, and other topics related to playing professionally in the NFL.

Their classes may be taken for regular university credits, but these athletes will audit them rather than seeking academic credit. Class attendance will be mandatory and monitored fully.

A failure to attend classes would lead to players being released from their contracts. Player academic eligibility would no longer be considered, and scholarship players unsuccessfully performing in the classroom could be relocated into the certificate program. Graduation rates will no longer be applicable, with so many of the players stepping up into the NFL.


College Athletes’ Free Agency as Determined by the NCAA Transfer Portal

In the new system, players would be bound by their contracts like professional athletes in all pro sports. School transfers could be allowed but only for extenuating circumstances. They will be considered on a case-by-case basis by the league office.

For each year college athletes stay and play at their respective schools, they would be rewarded with incremental salary increases. All salary tiers will be set by the league office and would be the same for all schools. Players who are not drafted into the NFL will be guaranteed their scholarships as long as they remain in good academic standing. 

If certificate-program players go undrafted, they would be guaranteed an athletic scholarship (if they desire) to begin and end their academic careers. Another option would be to receive a severance stipend, equal to the cost of a full four-year athletic scholarship.



The Drive for College Football Reform

College football’s restructuring is under a time limit, and time is running out. There is already a growing interest in the federal government to provide oversight if colleges can’t do it by themselves. 

U.S. Senators Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), both familiar with college football, have already created legislation that has found bipartisan support in the Senate. Both of these senators, although they represent different political parties, love football and want to help the sport with federal legislation through this difficult time.

Protecting Athletes, Schools, and Sports (PASS) legislation is being proposed to oversee NIL and the NCAA Transfer Portal at the university level. This bill would make it illegal for states to pass NIL laws like those laws that have made the present NIL system arbitrary and unfair. 

It would be wise for university football programs to adopt a system that will work to improve the sport for college athletes. Otherwise, external forces like the federal government might impose their own system to reform college football, which may not align with the preferences of coaches and schools.


APU’s Sports Management Degree

American Public University (APU) offers a comprehensive bachelor of science in sports management and a master of science in sports management. These sports management programs are meticulously designed to equip students with managerial skills and in-depth knowledge pertinent to the sports industry.

APU's holistic approach ensures that graduates are well-prepared to navigate the complexities of sports organizations and the dynamic nature of sporting events. By integrating theoretical knowledge with practical insights, as well as sports management career resources, our programs aim to cultivate the next generation of leaders in the sports industry, ready to tackle the challenges and embrace the opportunities that lie ahead in the world of sports.

Also, courses like LSTD209 (Sports Law, Risk, and Regulation) and SPMT608 (Sports Law) offer critical insights and foundational knowledge for navigating the current and future landscape of college athletics.

The Sports Law, Risk, and Regulation course delves into the complex interplay between legal frameworks and sports operations, covering everything from contracts and bargaining to liability and the role of governing bodies like the NCAA. This course equips students with the analytical tools to understand and influence the legal and regulatory aspects of sports, directly correlating with the challenges and opportunities presented by NIL arrangements, athlete mobility via the NCAA Transfer Portal, and the strategic decisions surrounding opt-outs.

Similarly, the Sports Law course provides a comprehensive overview of the legal issues central to the sports industry, including discrimination, labor, and antitrust law, all of which are intricately linked to the current shifts in college sports. By understanding these legal foundations, college athletes will better prepared to address the nuanced challenges posed by the evolving dynamics of athlete rights and college sports management.

Relevant Articles:

FOX is a registered trademark of FOX Media, LLC.
CBS is a registered trademark of CBS Broadcasting, Inc.
NBC is a registered trademark of NBC Universal Media, LLC.
YouTube is a registered trademark of Google, LLC.
Sling is a registered trademark of Sling Media, LLC.
DIRECTV is a registered trademark of DIRECTV, LLC.
Peacock is a registered trademark of Peacock TV, LLC.
Paramount+ is a registered trademark of Paramount Pictures Corporation.

About the Author
Dr. Barry Shollenberger
Dr. Barry Shollenberger is an associate professor in the sports management program at American Public University. He holds a B.A. in General Studies from Moravian College, an M.A. in Education from Western Kentucky University, and an Ed.D. in Health, Physical Education and Recreation from The University of Alabama. He has coached baseball for 30 years, 15 of which were at The University of Alabama where he was recognized as the College Baseball Coach of the Year by Baseball America in 1983.

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