There is a lot of NIL tomfoolery going on in college athletics right now. Oscar Tshiebwe’s expected windfall at Kentucky would not be part of that.
Tshiebwe, who announced Wednesday that he’s staying in school, is exactly the kind of college athlete who should be getting paid for his name, image and likeness. He’s a proven star, the reigning National Player of the Year, coming off one of the greatest rebounding seasons in the history of college hoops. He led Kentucky to a 26–8 record (and, full story be told, to the worst postseason loss in school history, against No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s in the NCAA tournament).
Stadium‘s Jeff Goodman tweeted that Tshiebwe could make $2 million, which is a very Kentucky number. The imperative to win at UK is bigger, thus so are the expenditures. (Always have been, whether it was NCAA-legal or not.) If the number is accurate, it still would leave Oscar well in arrears of coach John Calipari’s annual compensation of $8.5 million.
It’s a big moment in college basketball, a rare win for the sport in the talent tug-of-war with the NBA. Tshiebwe is the first national POY to stay in school since Tyler Hansbrough at North Carolina in 2008–09. It could also be argued that Hansbrough was Oscar before Oscar, a relentless battler around the basket with limited offensive skill away from the hoop and no great talent as a rim protector. There is even less of an NBA market for that kind of player now than there was in Hansbrough’s day and far more economic incentive to stay in school.
So this is a win-win for college hoops as a whole and Tshiebwe in particular. He has established marketability in a place that loves his college basketball heroes. Put his face on billboards on New Circle Road in Lexington. Let him sign autographs at Keeneland Race Course. If he likes the steaks at Malone’s, have him endorse those. Pay the man for being the star Wildcat he is.
The complication in many precincts—including Kentucky—is that players are being paid for who they might become. They are being paid on speculation. They are being paid on recruiting hype as opposed to proven high-level performance. That’s not name, image and likeness; that’s pay-for-play recruiting inducement being cloaked as NIL.
That’s not what Mark Emmert’s “guardrails” intended, as shabbily erected by his NCAA last year in a fit of panic. The governing body of college sports—and its campus leaders—fought compensation for athletes with every fiber of their retrograde beings, until it was too late. Lawyers and judges and politicians and public sentiment left the NCAA behind, moving forward in court and in state congressional houses to clear the way for athletes to make money off their stature.
That forced the NCAA into hurry-up legislation mode, which is like asking a sloth to try to sprint. With no other choice, it threw open the floodgates last July 1, babbled about “guardrails” that would prevent pay-for-play, and begged Congress for intervention. The result has been breathtaking.
There are a lot of good things happening regarding NIL opportunities for athletes of all kinds—big stars at blueblood programs in marquee sports, sure, but also more than a few women athletes and more than a few Olympic sports athletes and more than a few players at lesser schools. It can level a lot of playing fields—not completely, of course, but it can help. It’s certainly not the death of college sports, just an evolution that makes the entire enterprise more palatable and equitable.
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But as the NIL era nears a year of existence, it has (predictably) smashed through the plywood guardrails and has become a playground for buying recruits. Stories in The Athletic recently discussed a high school quarterback with a contract worth up to $8 million, and three other recruits signing deals ranging from $500,000 to $1,000,000.
They’re not being paid for anything they’ve done to thrill the fans and win games at old State U. They’re not being paid for working to establish their own “brands,” to use an overworked word. They’re being paid to show up and hopefully show out.
More than a few of the top prospects being paid big money right now will be college busts. That’s inevitable.
Recruiting has become a far more exact science in the last two decades, but there is still plenty of fingers-crossed projecting involved. Paying high school players has always been a risk but used to be done in secret—most of the under-the-table payments weren’t knowingly linked to a specific booster or business. Now it’s a much more public risk, which could come with much more public blowback for “underachieving” players and embarrassment for overpaying fanboys with too much disposable income.
Quarterback Spencer Rattler spoke recently about the “toxic” atmosphere he left at Oklahoma in transferring to South Carolina. Not performing well after getting free cars—not one but two—can create some fan toxicity, in addition to some pressure on the star QB prospect who doesn’t become an actual star. These are byproducts of compensating players before they’ve earned it.
Oscar Tshiebwe isn’t that guy. He’s earned it. Alabama linebacker Will Anderson has earned whatever he can get for his NIL. So has Ohio State quarterback CJ Stroud and Gonzaga big man Drew Timme and Oklahoma softball player Jocelyn Alo and Stanford swimmer Regan Smith.
The guy at Kentucky who hasn’t yet done a thing in a Wildcat uniform but still has a Porsche deal is Shaedon Sharpe, who shot a commercial for Louisville-based Blue Grass Motorsport in December, before he’d even started college. Sharpe reclassified and sat out this season after enrolling in January. He could be a big Wildcats star worthy of a Porsche someday—or he could enter the draft and be gone before ever playing a game in the uniform.
Transfers. Insults. Early draft entry. Simple failure to pan out. These are among the reasons why paying a player before he’s even put on a college uniform is a high-risk endeavor. It’s also not what NIL is supposed to be about.
College athletics has work to do if it wants to reinforce its “guardrails.” But Oscar Tshiebwe getting paid at Kentucky is not part of the problem; it’s part of the solution. That’s legitimate NIL at work, as it was meant to be.
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