Fort Worth Star-Telegram
FORT WORTH, Texas — The players are paid money over the table, have endorsement deals, have agents, and the benefits of a system that sounds a lot like free agency.
The Supreme Court-mandated destruction of the NCAA’s amusing amateur model has turned the most visible levels of college athletics into something that looks like an extension of the NFL, NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLB, and the rest.
The increasingly popular, and accepted belief, is that the NCAA player may be a “student-athlete” but they’re a pro.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” South Carolina football coach Shane Beamer said during a recent Q&A on the SEC Coaches’ Conference call. “I know where you’re going, and certainly there is a lot to that. It’s still college athletics. These guys are still going to school.”
“Not every player is getting paid to play football, or paid to play baseball,” Beamer said, “or be on the gymnastics team, or whatever. To me it’s still college athletics and it’s different than what it was five, 10, 15 years ago and it’s changing every day.”
College teams boast “directors of player personnel,” and “directors of player development,” and the modern-day student-athlete is a reflection of what looks like a professional sports franchise.
They’re not. They are some who are really close.
How close depends on a variety of factors, namely where you attend school, and just how good you are in your respective sport.
The difference between the pros and college
The softball player at UTEP is still every bit the student-athlete today, in this current NIL/portal world, as they were three years ago. Their compensation is the athletic scholarship, and the vast majority of the student-athletes in college sports fit the description.
It’s the football player at LSU, or men’s basketball player at Kansas, who is more like a pro than ever before.
They’re enticed to attend programs with the promise of money from the school’s collective, and endorsement deals.
When center Hunter Dickinson transferred from Michigan to Kansas in May, one of the primary reasons he cited was that he was paid less than six-figures playing for the Wolverines.
Former Texas running back Bijan Robinson, who had six NIL deals last season, famously had a contract last season with Lamborghini Austin. A little known fact about that car: he barely drove it.
And there is still a difference.
“I don’t believe (getting paid) makes you a pro. Seeing the two sides of things now, here it’s all football,” Dallas Cowboys rookie running back Deuce Vaughn said after his team’s Week 2 win over the Jets.
He’s lived both sides.
When he was a freshman at Kansas State, the portal wasn’t quite so free flowing as it is today, when players easily come and go.
When he was a freshman at Kansas State, the idea of making money through NIL was still a point of contention that had to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
A “collective,” which is an end-around on NIL that basically allows the players to be paid, wasn’t even born yet.
When he was a junior, in 2022, the portal was wide open, and the players could be compensated over the table.
Now, he’s an actual pro football player.
“Here (with the Dallas Cowboys), this is your livelihood. This is your job,” Vaughn said. “In college, you are making money but you are going to school. You are going to classes. You are going to get a degree. It’s not necessarily all football.
“It’s great that you are making money, and I believe that all athletes should be compensated because what they are doing does generate a lot of revenue for their school, but here it’s all ball and it’s what you do to make money.”
Some are pros; most are just college kids
Thanks to collectives, as well as NIL deals, there are some members of college football, and basketball, teams who make thousands of dollars per month.
The deals are private, and the numbers that do exist are mostly speculation; Front Office Sports reports that a “top Power 5 football players are earning $45,000 from their collectives, according to data from Student-Athlete NIL; top Power 5 and Big East basketball players earn an average of $75,000.”
Let’s assume these figures are close to accurate.
“A lot of these guys are going to make more money playing college football than they’ll make for the rest of their life,” TCU head football coach Sonny Dykes said.
All of this is what led college athletic directors, including TCU’s Jeremiah Donati, to go to Washington D.C. last week to lobby congress; they’re not lobbying against student-athletes being paid but rather asking for help to draft some legislation to guardrails on what still looks like crazy Wall Street spending.
Iowa women’s basketball player Caitlin Clark and LSU forward Angel Reese have both reportedly cashed in on nice NIL endorsement deals.
LSU gymnast Livvy Dunne is one of the most popular student-athletes in college sports. She has 4.4 million followers on Instagram, and 7.8 million followers on TikTok.
She’s essentially a model/influencer who has turned her fame into millions of dollars.
She is not the only student-athlete doing this. Former Miami women’s basketball players Haley and Hanna Cavinder, known as The Cavinder Twins, come to mind.
Good players, attractive to the camera, who wisely used their affiliations with “name schools,” social media skills and appearance to drive interest, and broker all of their fame into a lot of money. A few have cashed in with six and seven-figures.
When Dunne joined her LSU teammates at the NCAA championships in Fort Worth in the spring, interview requests were directed to her agent.
Agents who are currently running all over college sports; they entice a kid to leave their current program via the transfer portal because the agent promises he has a spot lined up at another school, with the “guarantee” of a big NIL deal, of which the agent may take 10 to 15%.
If the kid transfers, and the deal falls through, or was never there to be begin with, the agent just finds another client, i.e. sucker.
In reality, much like the pre-NIL world, there is a small number of high-profile student-athletes who are so good they can score pro-like contracts. For the overwhelming majority of student-athletes, this is the peak of their athletic career, and they’re not pros.
“They are some guys who are, yes,” Dykes said. “You have six or seven guys on your team who have an opportunity to make a living playing football. If you have a really good team, you might have 10 or 12 guys. I mean, getting a second contract (in the NFL) and making a living.”
For a high-end Power Five, soon to be Four, football program, that ratio is about right. It’s always been that way.
“So it’s five players, maybe, that can do that,” Dykes said. “The other 95 percent of the guys are going to get a job; they’re going to be bankers and teachers. I think it’s the furthest things from professionals.”
The creation of the transfer portal and NIL money has pushed the NCAA student-athlete closer to the professional level more than ever, but there is a difference.
The wide receiver for the University of Miami is still a college kid whereas the wide receiver for the Miami Dolphins is going to work.