The new era of college sports did not announce itself subtly. Instead, it came in the form of a ransom note from an agent you’ve probably never heard of and a player most people even in his own market wouldn’t recognize.
But Adam Papas of NEXT Sports and Isaiah Wong of Miami Hurricanes basketball (at least for now) have pulled the pin and thrown a grenade right into the middle of the NCAA’s attempt to deal with name, image and likeness by covering their eyes and hoping Congress will ride in to save them. This should be the wake-up call that college sports has no choice now but to become an active participant in its own rescue.
To understand exactly what’s going on here, and why Miami basketball has momentarily become the epicenter of an earthquake in college sports, let’s back up a few days.
Alongside an announcement that all-Big 12 guard Nijel Pack was transferring from Kansas State to Miami, billionaire booster John Ruiz quite publicly trumpeted that his company LifeWallet had signed Pack to a two-year, $800,000 deal plus a car for name, image and likeness rights.
Though Ruiz had apparently been paying more than 100 Miami athletes — all legal, according to state law and the new NCAA rules that allow athletes to profit off their marketing rights — this was his biggest deal to date. And making it public sparked one of the biggest reactions within the coaching community I’ve seen in 20 years.
Top college players have been getting big money forever — over the table, under the table, whatever. Before NIL, it wasn’t even all that uncommon for some top players and their inner circles to get paid just for a campus visit. When the FBI investigation into college basketball uncovered that the cost to get Brian Bowen to Louisville was $100,000 — a good recruit, but not necessarily a star-level player — you could only imagine what top-10 guys could have commanded.
But Nijel Pack? Good college player, but he’s a 6-foot guard who averaged 17 points last season for a team that finished 9-20. No disrespect, but he that’s probably not the guy you’re going to bank on as the leader of a Final Four team. And yet that’s the guy with the biggest NIL deal at Miami? That’s who’s going to make more money than the assistants?
Coaches are not naïve to the world they’re living in now. But that deal going public took a lot of people back.
You know who else it took back? Isaiah Wong.
Wong, who also has a NIL deal with Ruiz/LifeWallet, was Miami’s second-best player last season and helped lead the Hurricanes to a surprising Elite Eight run. Wong is not considered a top-level NBA prospect, so it makes sense for him to come back and maximize his college experience, including some good money through NIL.
But apparently, having a smaller NIL deal than his new teammate didn’t sit well. And on Thursday night, Wong’s agent told ESPN that he would enter the transfer portal on Friday unless his NIL compensation was increased.
And now here we are — in a mess that is entirely a product of the NCAA’s ineptitude and unwillingness to acknowledge that this is professional sports.
Perhaps it’ll be the wake-up call that college sports needs. Because as chaotic as the past couple years have been for schools figuring out this new wild west, there’s a certain threshold of dysfunction that cannot be sustained.
Players holding schools and boosters hostage because their teammates got a better deal is the kind of thing that might force everyone to admit there’s a better way.
Nearly every problem that has bubbled to the surface in the era of NIL and the transfer portal is the product of two opposing forces. First, the NCAA continues to insist that it is an organization for amateur sports, thus avoiding the contractual obligations and collective bargaining processes that ensure professional leagues run smoothly. Second, the courts have basically said that the NCAA’s attempts to regulate these things through its rules are illegal.
So instead what you’re left with is chaos.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In the end, this isn’t a complex problem.
For years, the NCAA and college administrators argued that only a handful of star players had financial value. After relenting on NIL rights at the point of a legal bayonet, that’s been proven false. Not only do average or above-average players have significant value, but hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars are available to many. And though it’s all under the guise of NIL, everyone understands now that a completely unregulated market leads to absurdity.
When Saint Peter’s guard Doug Edert lands a deal with Buffalo Wild Wings after he leads his team to an upset of Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament, that’s NIL. When a booster like Ruiz throws around huge money to a Kansas State transfer or a collective of boosters funds a recruiting class, that’s pay-for-play — even if it’s technically filtered through all the proper legal channels without an explicit commitment to attend a particular school.
I don’t have a problem with college athletes being paid their fair share. This is a multi-billion dollar business, and they play a key role in making it so popular.
But funding their labor through collectives and boosters without regulation is a flawed system. The Wong situation, however it gets resolved, is just one example of what can happen. As we get into the second and third year of NIL, we’re going to see plenty of recruits who got big money who turn out to be bad investments. We’re going to see millionaires grow weary of college kids trying to leverage them. We’re going to see legal action between players and boosters. It could all get very ugly.
The answer, though, has been in front of the NCAA forever. Make the athletes employees, cut them in on the massive amount of revenue being raked in by football and basketball, collectively bargain the terms of engagement and sign athletes to enforceable contracts. If they don’t like their deal, too bad.
The NCAA has forever resisted the idea that college athletes need to be dealt with like professionals. But when a Miami basketball player threatens to leave unless his NIL contract gets renegotiated, we are past the point of no return.
The next step is not only obvious, it’s necessary. And unless the NCAA accepts that, Isaiah Wong is only the beginning.