The Pretentious Hypocrisy of the Varsity Collective

A Florida Gators booster group offered a hot quarterback prospect $13 million in advertising contracts (called Name, Image and Likeness or NIL) to sign with the team. That was a wonderful thing. It was the free market at work and it meant that a player was finally being paid something close to what he was worth. It might have (actually it will soon enough) opened the floodgates to other similar good and fair deals.

But the NCAA, a group of professional busy bodies desperate to find a reason for their continued existence, quashed the deal. Why, you might ask? The quarterback had great potential, willing donors/advertisers thought he was a good investment. Buyers and sellers agreed to a price for his services. What’s not to like?

For most of us in the real world there is nothing not to like. But in the world of the NCAA it’s still very important to hang onto the thin reed called the “student-athlete.” That’s because without that myth schools — not just boosters and advertisers — would eventually have to pay players what they’re worth. And that would mean a little less for the coaches, the athletic department administrators and the NCAA officials themselves. Can’t have that.

Almost two years ago the courts, over the strong objections of the NCAA, made it possible for players to profit from their own name, image and likeness. For a century or more before that their schools could use their pictures, sell their jerseys and otherwise use them for the schools’ own profit or the profit of any vendor who could make a buck off of them. Everybody could make money except the athlete whose image was on the product.

The obvious unfairness of that finally broke through the NCAA’s resistance. At about the same time players were also allowed to transfer more or less freely between schools through what is now known as the portal. Before that a player had to sit out a year and lose a year of valuable eligibility if he wanted to transfer. That was designed to create a system of what amounted to indentured servitude.

Now, take those two things — NIL and the portal — and combine them with something that had been going on forever — under the counter or barely above the counter payments to athletes from big donors — and you get the new environment. In this environment the big donors get together, pool their money, and offer thinly veiled NIL contracts to induce the best players to sign with or to transfer to their alma mater. That’s how you end up with the Florida NIL syndicate offering the quarterback $13 million to sign with the Gators.

I cannot see a single thing wrong with any of that. But the NCAA and the UW do. They’re still hung up on the long-discredited idea of the “student-athlete.” And so the home team dresses up righteous pay-for-play with all kinds of hypocritical nonsense designed to preserve the “student-athlete” scam.

Wisconsin State Journal sports editor Jim Polzin quoted the director of the UW’s affiliated NIL conduit, the Varsity Collective, in a piece over the weekend.

“We don’t make any promises, any guarantees. We live the letter and the spirit of the NCAA guidance around inducements,” Master said last week. “We have not been involved in any way, shape or form in any inducements. We tell the story of The Varsity Collective and the opportunities to get deals for NIL and for opportunities for student-development and programming, but that’s where we draw the line in terms of any engagement with recruits.”

Really? Because the trip down the hall between “the opportunities to get deals for NIL” and “inducements” is only a few paces.

But more importantly, why the pretense? Outside of following the goofy NCAA rules which will fall soon enough anyway, why not just put together lucrative deals to lure the best players to the UW and be honest about it? Why contort the language and put yourself through hoops to try to dress up pay-for-play (another way of saying just compensation for services rendered) as something noble and student-athletey? It seems to me to be plenty noble enough to pay a guy what he’s worth.

It’s not perfect, but as a rule the free market is a wonderful thing. After all, it’s the means by which all those wealthy boosters got rich. Why shouldn’t that work for the players just as well?


Published by dave cieslewicz

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

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