In the last year or so two major changes have combined to make big time college sports more fair to the players.
First, the NCAA finally caved to the inevitable and allowed players to make money off their own “name, image and likeness” — basically they could make commercials for local car dealerships or whatever, just like their coaches.
And second, also under pressure, the NCAA made it easy for players to transfer between schools for purely athletic reasons. They no longer had to sit out a year or make up some bogus academic excuse for making the switch. They could take their talents to South Beach or wherever a school would let them play.
These two things have combined in predictable ways. It didn’t lake long for boosters to figure out how to game the system. The kind of rich guys (they’re almost all guys) who for over a century have been either paying players under the table or stretching the NCAA’s arcane rules to do so, now can do it above board. Booster groups all over the country are pooling their money and paying players en masse to do phony stuff like being “influencers.” Get the best dozen players together and have them do a video supporting a business. Pay them each $10,000 or whatever. It’s a scam, but a more honest and open sort of scam than what went on before.
Now combine that with the “transfer portal” (which is just the mechanism for players to put themselves on the open market among college programs) and you get a bidding war for the best players. Come play for Alabama and we’ll set you up with $100,000 in NIL opportunities. No, come to Notre Dame and we’ll guarantee you $200,000.
In my view this is just flat out great. It means that players in big time college sports can finally get a piece of the billions of dollars they produce for others. And it just destroys the obnoxious fiction of the “student athlete.” Players can be honest about moving between schools to get the best deal whether that means playing time, media exposure or cash.
The UW has been resistant to all of this all along. Chancellor Rebecca Blank went so far as to testify in favor of the NCAA’s cartel in a lawsuit brought by the players to get some economic justice. But then she cynically promoted a plan to exploit an NCAA loophole that allows schools to pay players $6,000 just for showing up in class under the pretense that being paid to look like a student was somehow noble where as being paid to play was scandalous.
And now new Athletic Director Chris McIntosh is squirming over the new era. Only two months ago he was saying that the UW would never support deals like the boosters pool described above. Now he’s changed his mind. The Wisconsin State Journal reported over the weekend (complete with the requisite obsequious column from the sports page editor) that McIntosh was now okay with the new Varsity Collective — the name for the booster pool that will do just exactly what McInstosh said should never be done at Wisconsin.
McIntosh found a fig leaf, which is that the VC promises that it won’t use its money to try to lure players off the portal. Trust me folks, that commitment will last about ten minutes. As other schools compete for athletes using their booster money, the UW will have to do the same. And that’s more than fine because it means that bidding wars will drive up what players can demand for their services. Just like the good old free market that made the boosters rich and allows coaches to demand the highest compensation packages that the market will bear.
There’s one more step that needs to be taken. In addition to freedom to transfer for any reason, including money, players need to be paid by their schools just like the employees that they are. That’s going to be the toughest reform of all because it means that players will get a slice of the big pie that is now going only to their coaches and administrators. So, don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. But let’s pause for a moment and celebrate the Varsity Collective. They’re finally doing above the table what was being done under it before and what the schools should have been doing all along: pay the players.