Almost a decade before Southern Methodist University was given the death penalty by the National Collegiate Athletic Association for violating rules against paying student-athletes, Texas high school football star Erick Dickerson was famously given a gold Pontiac TransAm, supposedly by his grandmother.
Decades later, Dickerson confirmed that a Texas A&M booster was the true purchaser of the car, although Dickerson ended up signing with SMU anyway. The Mustangs allegedly had their own compensation set up for Dickerson.
Now, over four decades after the NCAA canceled SMU’s 1987 football season, Dickerson and his gold TransAm are back. Only this time, they are openly using it to promote the now-legal practice of paying student-athletes under the guise of name, image, and likeness deals.
In theory, under the NCAA’s rules governing NIL deals, student-athletes are not supposed to take NIL money in exchange for promises to attend a certain school. The rules require some type of endorsement effort on the student athlete's part. This could be something as simple as a tweet endorsing a company, an autograph signing, or even a speaking engagement.
But once those hoops are jumped through, it very much does appear that student-athletes are being paid to attend certain schools. “Based on what we are hearing, $50,000-$100,000 a year seems to be the average rate,” NIL management executive Peter Schoenthal told Sports Illustrated. “The in-your-face inducements are only really starting to happen now. It’s being done in the open.”
Payments to student-athletes have always been part of elite college athletics, but now that the practice is legal, the payments are growing. “We're funneling everything previously under-the-table over the table,” one Southeastern Conference staff member told SI. “The big change is the numbers are going up. Before NIL, you knew it was bulls*** if a kid came to you and said he was getting more than $50,000 from another school. Now, numbers that used to be bulls*** aren’t bulls*** anymore.”
Some college football fans worry about what the NIL money will do to competitive balance, but the gap between what elite schools spend on coaches, facilities, and travel was already astronomical. Over the last 20 years, six schools have won 75% of the national championships, and the top seven schools have signed 55% of the top five-star high school prospects.
If anything, NIL money may end up being a curse to big-time schools that chase the best talent at the highest prices. Studies have shown that teams with high wage disparities don’t perform as well as teams in which players are compensated equally.
Some star student-athletes will get rich on NIL before they hit the pros. But the schools that take a measured approach, and remember that football is a team sport, will be the most successful.