Is NIL Money an Unwanted Distraction to College Football Teams?

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Today’s guest columnist is Michael H. LeRoy.

If you had a million-dollar NIL deal as a college student, would you spend more time fulfilling the obligations of that deal, preparing for your next game or (gasp) studying?

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During the college football offseason, Nick Saban insinuated that Jimbo Fisher was using a big pot of NIL money to recruit five-star players (Texas A&M had the No. 1-ranked recruiting class among players who graduated high school in 2022). But 11 weeks into the 2022 college football season, Texas A&M looked like an overpaid team, sitting at the bottom of the SEC. Alabama, with players boasting their own substantial NIL deals, was also performing below expectations, ranked No. 8 in the AP poll.

The real story in college football this year is the unexpected emergence of TCU, Liberty, Illinois, Kansas State, Tulane and Syracuse—all of which were ranked in the AP poll at some point in November, and none of which have big NIL deals that made national headlines.

Is it possible that players with smaller and fewer NIL deals are able to better focus on the sport and develop good team chemistry? No single factor explains why some football teams win and others lose. Still, there may be some truth to the less-is-more NIL theory for college football in 2022.

I surveyed the 25 state NIL laws enacted by July 1, 2021 and scored each law on the number of pay restrictions for athletes. Illinois had the most pay-restriction points (45), outpacing second-place Arkansas (29) and Mississippi (28).

By early November, football teams in these states—Mississippi State, Mississippi, Arkansas and Illinois—were enjoying more success than teams in states with no NIL laws or less restrictive laws. Are these teams better coached? Do they have more talent? Are their schedules easier? Or are their players less distracted by NIL deal-making and wealth?

My analysis (“Do Players Get NIL?”), forthcoming in the University of Illinois Law Review, found that only two states— Illinois and Mississippi— immunize universities from tort or unfair competition lawsuits in NIL deals. These laws are legally problematic because they may raise antitrust concerns, apart from the blockbuster antitrust lawsuit seeking NIL money for players who participated from 2016 through 2021, before the NCAA issued an interim NIL policy.

After all, who is the biggest competitive threat to a school that profits from marketing its logo and brand? It’s a school’s star athlete, who could attract his or her own shoe deal, endorsement or similar.

Now think about NIL deals from the vantage point of player agents. Would you look for business in Illinois and Mississippi knowing that if a school revoked approval for an NIL deal, or dismissed a player, your client would not have any legal recourse against the school? NIL sponsors might think similarly: If a school interfered with an NIL deal, there would be no way to seek a court injunction to stop a school from irreparably harming the sponsor’s commercial interests.

While my analysis sees these situations as potential antitrust problems affecting athletes in Illinois and Mississippi, this could be a blessing in disguise for the football programs. Their players might be less appealing in regional and national markets for NIL agents and sponsors, giving them fewer NIL opportunities—and more time to think about the game.

For highly marketed players, the constant churn of making deals, interacting with agents and fulfilling NIL deal obligations—making appearances or creating social media posts—are just the start. Thanks to NIL, college athletes are also navigating new tasks such as bookkeeping and filing tax returns.

And remember—these athletes are still required to attend classes. They must maintain a minimum GPA while holding down the full-time job of being a football player.

I teach professional degree and undergraduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Since COVID-19 altered their educational experiences, they exhibit more stress and achieve less academic success than before the pandemic. My colleagues here and at other universities report similar experiences. But these students don’t have demanding athletic seasons, nor are they absorbed by NIL deal-making.

At a Power Five university, it’s not hard to imagine that the teams with the richest NIL deals have athletes with shorter attention spans to dedicate to winning football.

Michael H. LeRoy, a professor at the University of Illinois, has published multiple law review articles on college sports, as well as the book, Collective Bargaining in Sports & Entertainment: Professional Skills and Business Strategies.

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