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NCAA's NIL decision brings positive changes and uncertainty

07/12/2021, 10:00am EDT
By Jason Guarente

Jason Guarente (@JasonGuarente)

The changes coming to the college sports landscape felt a little more personal the moment Kris Jenkins digitally raised his hand.

Someone on Twitter asked followers to name an athlete who could have become rich selling his name, image and likeness. 

“Can I say myself?” Jenkins asked.

Kris Jenkins dribbles a basketball

Kris Jenkins (above, in 2016) was the center of the basketball world for a few days after winning Villanova the national championship in 2016, but wasn't able to profit off his best moment. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

It’s fair for Jenkins to imagine what kind of financial windfall might have awaited him in April 2016. How many autographs he could have signed. How many T-shirts he could have sold with a photo of him floating in the air and making that shot.

Everyone knows which shot. The one that lifted Villanova over North Carolina for the national championship. For a few fleeting days, Jenkins was at the center of the sports world.

The 6-foot-6 guard didn’t make a dime back then. He had one more college season to play and was prohibited from profiting off the best moment of his basketball life.

So, yes, Jenkins can say himself. He lost a fortune.

NIL, as it became known in shorthand, turned into a reality last week. The NCAA’s Division I Board of Governors removed the restrictions that prevented athletes from earning money off their names, images and likeness.

It opened the door to a whole new world. The thin veil of amateurism that cloaked an industry worth billions was lifted.

"This is certainly a new day for college athletics and its student-athletes,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said in a statement. “I look forward to our players having the chance to explore the new opportunities this state and NCAA legislation affords them."

Wright is the third-highest paid coach in the country at approximately $6 million, according to USA Today. He’s one of 60 NCAA coaches earning at least $2 million annually. There has long been money to go around. It just never found its way to the athletes.

That’s going to change. Exactly how remains to be seen.

With many states about to pass legislation giving athletes their NIL rights, the NCAA was compelled to act on an interim basis. Until a federal law is written, there’s a gray area regarding what will and won’t be allowed.

That has led to some concerns among coaches and administrators.

“This Name, Image and Likeness model will have an impact on the college athletics environment,” St. Joe’s assistant John Griffin III said. “I don’t think it’s fair to presume in which way and I think the easiest way to make an assumption on the impact is to think everybody’s going to make money, and that’s just not the case.

“Now there are, obviously, going to be opportunities afforded to the student-athletes that they were never afforded before, but there are still a lot of question marks, a ton of unknowns as to how this will actually work. I think there will be tiers that will have to be figured out throughout time, but it seems as though every university, and especially in this area, they’re trying to afford their kids opportunities.”

Athletes jumped at the chance to profit. There are many paths toward possible revenue. Some quickly gained internet attention.

Jordan Bohannon, a redshirt senior at Iowa, turned a fireworks sale into a raffle ticket for the shoes he wore when making a game-winning shot. Every $10 bought fans another chance.

These deals will be negotiated by the athletes themselves separate from the athletic departments, which can only provide education and guidance. Endorsements will often stem from the athletes’ social media footprints. They can reach huge audiences.

Coaches fear the lack of specifics in the guidelines could lead to unintended consequences. It’s the wild west right now.

“I don’t think anyone can actually stop these guys from signing deals,” said one Atlantic 10 coach. “Do we all want them to wait until we can create institutional policies to protect them? Yes. But I’m not sure that’s where we are.

“The dangerous part for all is that although it is now legal, we still only have about five percent of the puzzle in front of us. We simply just don’t know enough about what the NCAA will decide. Therefore we do not know the ramifications of it all if there will be any.”

A tiny percentage of athletes are headed toward a successful pro future. Most have a small window in which to capitalize on their regional fame. They’re not going to sit around and wait for the details to be written. They’re going to strike while they can.

No one knows what comes next. Will athletes be in commercials and have their faces on billboards? Will they distribute content on social media? Host podcasts? Sell merchandise? All of the above?

“I’m not actually sure what direction it’ll go, whether it be content creation or whether it’ll be advertisements that are a little more antiquated-type advertisements, TV, I’m not really sure,” Griffin III said. “And I think that’s going to be hard to figure out. But for right now, every university is doing whatever they feel is the right and necessary step to give their student-athletes the best opportunities to maximize this. That’s what we’re doing as well. We’re trying to provide our kids with education, whether it be how to use social media to create a brand or how to carry yourself so that you are afforded opportunities to maybe make money, and in some cases how to run a basketball camp in your hometown, which you can now do.”

Jenkins didn’t walk out of Villanova and into a lucrative NBA contract. He went undrafted, played overseas and in the G League for two years and is filling a mentorship role in Student-Athlete Development at his alma mater.

The man who made the greatest shot in Villanova history is hosting an autograph session at the Jersey Shore this week. Fans can visit and reminisce.

One can only wonder how many more would have shown up five years ago.

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