Opinion

OPINION | GREG HARTON: Let athletes earn money through NIL, but don’t let institutions use it to bolster recruiting

Because Arkansas lacks an NFL or NBA franchise, it's long been suggested that the Arkansas Razorbacks' football and basketball squads are, more or less, the state's professional teams.

Frank Broyles, the late coach and athletic director responsible for the stature of University of Arkansas athletics, was devoted to making sure his athletic program had no serious rival for the affections -- and money -- of the state's residents.

Some of you may snicker at the use of "stature" given the struggles of Arkansas football, particularly. Nonetheless, the foundation of the UA's athletics program is substantial thanks to Broyles' dedication and vision.

Broyles was a nationally prominent figure, in large part because of his tenure as color commentator for ABC's coverage of college football alongside broadcasting great Keith Jackson. There were years when one could legitimately say Broyles was more influential in Arkansas than the state's governor.

I wonder sometimes what Broyles would make of the landscape of college athletics today, namely these developments over the last couple of years through which the collegiate competition he so loved feels not much different than professional football.

I'm not terribly bent out of shape over players receiving payments for use of their name, image or likeness, commonly referred to as NIL. Who else should profit from a person's name, image or likeness, after all?

For years, the NCAA barred athletes from receiving much of anything other than scholarships as they played out their college eligibility. As college sports became more of an entertainment sensation and schools made millions of dollars from broadcasting contracts, it seemed everyone but the players were pocketing large sums. Coaches salaries have exploded. Meanwhile, athletes couldn't accept a free meal from someone who might be considered a booster.

Let the athletes have their money.

What concerns me, as a fan of collegiate competition, is the institutionalization of NIL money-making schemes by colleges and universities and its now outsized influence on the decisions of 18-year-old kids about where they'll go to school and compete. They may as well hold a draft and sign players to contracts.

The UA's athletic department recently announced the creation of Arkansas Edge, an entity set up to bolster NIL opportunities for athletes. One could say Arkansas is a little late to the game. Such collectives are becoming common in college athletics as a way for the schools to marshal resources -- namely money -- from fans and sponsors. That money can serve as a tool to attract players to commit to playing for a college's teams.

More than ever, the decision of where to enroll in college and play sports is a matter of who can arrange the most money for the athlete. If it doesn't work out, athletes can transfer to another college that convinces him or her more money awaits. Yes, there are rules about how universities behave, but they haven't caught up to the reality of the situation.

College football, in particular, seems barely about "college" anymore. Scholarships can become minor considerations when compared to what NIL numbers look like to a young man or woman.

To the extent NIL is professionalizing college athletics, I think it will be a loss. College football will become just like the NFL. Same for basketball and maybe baseball.

Let the athletes make money through NIL. But laws and NCAA rules ought to prevent the institutions from becoming NIL machines. If an athlete can earn money through NIL once they're on campus, let them be treated like any other student who works while attending school. But the institutions -- all of them -- shouldn't be permitted to use NIL as bait, promising orchestrated fortunes in return for playing commitments. That's just play to play.

If that's what college athletics will become, just make them part of the NFL.

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