The Cynicism of the “Varsity Collective”

Nobody can top the UW Athletic Department for sanctimony. But now they’ve reached a new level with the Varsity Collective.

To understand what this thing is and why it’s so galling you need some background.

Last year, at the point of legal gun, the NCAA finally allowed college athletes to benefit from their own name, image and likeness, otherwise known as NIL. Up to that point, for a hundred years or so, the schools as well as all kinds of advertisers and businesses could make a buck off a player’s picture without having to pay the athlete a dime.

The new NIL policy, adopted only after the NCAA’s legal fight against NIL was exhausted, essentially allowed players to do commercials for local car dealerships or whatever, just as their coaches had done forever. But anyone could see what was going to happen next. There is a long tradition, especially in college football, to have fat cat boosters pay the players under the table or to find ways to skirt the rules to pay them (just barely) legitimately. So, it didn’t take long for those boosters to figure out how to use the NIL opening to compete for the best players out of high school or through the also new transfer portal, which allows players to transfer between schools without sitting out for a year as under the old rule.

Booster groups on campuses all over the country started to form networks to pool their money to pay all or most of the players for doing something nominal in support of a product, like be an “influencer.” But this was really about luring the best players to their team. And the two streams — NIL and the portal — started to come together as specific players were recruited to come to a school with the promise of a hefty NIL payout.

The Varsity Collective achieves a new level of sanctimony for the UW athletic program.

Let me just pause here to say that I think all this is mostly wonderful. Finally, players who are making billions for others have a chance to feed at the trough they fill. The only remaining problem — and it’s a big one — is that the schools themselves aren’t paying the players. Schools ultimately went along with NIL because it’s not their money. They can continue to pay coaches and administrators astronomic salaries and bonuses while having somebody else pay the help. More on that below.

Enter the Varsity Collective, the local version of NIL pooling schemes. It’s the same time honored tradition of fat cats paying players but dressed up in sanctimonious drivel about helping “student-athletes.” (And, by the way, you know that when someone uses that phrase to describe Division 1 football or men’s basketball players, they want to pull one over on you.)

The feature of this scheme that’s most eye-popping is that it gives fans the opportunity to contribute directly to the program. So paying off players isn’t just for the fat cats anymore. Here’s how Wisconsin State Journal Sports Editor (and, for all intents and purposes, UW Athletic Department spokesperson) Jim Polzin wrote about it.

“We’re going to work with the athletic department’s internal NIL staff to maintain compliance within the text and the spirit of NCAA guidelines,” said Rob Master, the collective’s executive chair. “Above all, we’ll ensure that we’re acting in the best interest of our Badger student-athletes.”

So, no, your $100 contribution isn’t going to go directly into the pocket of some four-star running back, shooting guard or outside hitter.

My question is, why the hell not? If I were to give $100 to this thing (and I’d kill myself before doing that) I’d want every dime of it to go to the kid. And if it’s not going to the player, where is it going?

The answer is in some murky language about providing opportunities for players after they’re done playing. It’s essentially just networking opportunities for players with business owners and corporate executives. Why you need a program for this isn’t made clear.

And it’s probably not made clear because it’s just so much smoke and mirrors. The naked truth is that now Wisconsin boosters will be paying players just like Alabama boosters have been doing it for a century. The UW is either so naive about that or so bought into its own spin that they’re better than that, that it has gone to great lengths to invest even more deeply in the quaint notion of the “student-athlete.”

I would have more respect for all concerned if they’d just be honest: We want to win because we’re competitive people, because our fan base demands it and because it means even more money for us. In order to win we need the best players and in order to get them we need to pay competitive wages through NIL. So, we’re going to raise as much money as we can, and because we know we can’t compete with the likes of Alabama for raw dollars, we’re going to try to market an image of our program that is a little classier and might appeal to parents of athletes.

That’s the Varsity Collective honestly described. And, stated that way, it’s fine by me. What isn’t fine by me is that this is also a scam to keep at bay the notion of colleges directly paying the players.

Look, the Big Ten expanded to the huge California media markets just before it inked a new TV deal worth seven billion dollars. A few weeks before that (maybe they knew it was coming?) the UW gave big pay package increases to its coaches. Men’s basketball coach Greg Gard got a 29% increase to $3.55 million with an automatic $100,000 annual increase plus bonuses and a big payout if his teams start to lose and they fire him. The football team’s defensive coordinator, Jim Leonhard, got a 50% increase to $1.5 million while head coach Paul Chryst got his big increase last year and now makes $5.25 million. All told, the UW football coaches will get $10.44 million before post season bonuses, a new record. (And, by the way, we only know that because the State Journal had to file an open records request to get the data. Give Polzin credit for at least doing that much.)

And on the heels of all that comes the Varsity Collective. You think this isn’t timed to head off pressure for the players to get their share of the TV deal? If so, I’ve got a couple tickets to that classic battle between the Badgers and New Mexico State to sell you at just a little over face value.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

7 thoughts on “The Cynicism of the “Varsity Collective”

  1. Okay, I get it and agree. I don’t agree with a gratuitous snipe at Polzin, a straight-up guy working under conditions you would never, ever survive. (See what I mean about gratuitous?) It’s a friggin’ quote, for crying out loud!

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  2. I agree with Mr. Hesselberg’s defense of Jim Polzin, who seems like a solid reporter covering a difficult, high profile beat. His stories are typically thorough and (reasonably) objective. The biggest Badger booster of all was former Cap Times “reporter” Mike Lucas, who, for a long time was employed both by the newspaper and the UW, who had to approve of him as a radio announcer. (He’s actually very good at that job.) The conflict of interest in his situation was blatant.

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    1. Jim Polzin may be a fine fellow and an otherwise solid reporter, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that he shies away from writing anything critical of the UW Athletic Department. Here are just some of the good, tough reporter’s questions he might have asked about the VC: How much will the executive director be paid and what is the budget for other overhead costs? Will that come out of contributions that would otherwise go to the players? Why do we need the VC to do what is essentially just networking with business executives and doesn’t a lot of that happen already? Will players be required or pressured to get their NIL deals through VC? Is the idea to have greater control over players and how they might employ their VC opportunities? If a player does use VC will he be prevented from endorsing certain products? What will players be required to do to receive NIL benefits from the VC? Will all players be treated equally or will special benefits be targeted at star athletes? Will the VC be used in conjunction with the transfer portal to lure athletes to the UW? I could go on, but my point is that Polzin didn’t pursue any of these angles. Instead, he wrote a fluff piece that didn’t deviate an inch from what the UW wanted the story to be about.

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      1. Stu Levitan used to elicit questions on the old Isthmus forum, for guests on his television program. He would typically interview local liberals and I would submit non-softball questions which he would never ask. After a while I just figured he’s gotta live in this town and he wouldn’t be able to get anyone to come on unless he did puff pieces.

        When your bread and butter depends on it (Stu’s b&b is a camera or microphone), there’s 2 things you don’t question in this town – liberals and the UW Athletic Department.

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