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Opinion: NIL deals are changing college athletics, for better or for worse




Over the last three years, I’ve seen a seismic change in collegiate athletics that’s divided the nation while giving student-athletes a chance to make money legally for the first time in NCAA history.


On June 30, 2021, the NCAA suspended its name, image, and likeness — colloquially known as NIL — restrictions, allowing athletes to profit off their fame. Before this historic declaration, athletes were not allowed to make money on their image, meaning they couldn’t sign autographs for money, earn revenue from their jersey sales at universities, etc.


NIL deals seem to be changing everything in college athletics, from the talent level on the court to how long athletes stay at certain universities.


They appear to revolutionize the way college sports are played. Between NIL and new transfer portal rules, student-athletes aren’t staying at one college for four years.


Transferring has become so normal that schools like UTA have started refocusing their pitches to student-athletes currently in college rather than incoming freshmen.


The decision was met with mixed reactions, and I initially supported it. Athletes were making their universities millions of dollars, and it felt right that they could now earn a piece of that pie, especially as many struggled with food insecurity and the ability to afford rent because they didn’t have enough time to pursue a job.


UTA NIL director Holland Sutton said these deals help student-athletes pay rent, support their families back home or fund trips home to see their families. The money is often used for groceries or extra clothes.


“I wouldn't say any kids are getting rich, but getting some of that extra money to be able to spend on things you need is really essential, and that's the good part about NIL,” Sutton said.


As I look at the current landscape of NIL deals, I can’t ignore the harm they’re inflicting on collegiate sports, specifically the competitive disadvantage they introduce. Athletes receive the compensation they rightfully deserve, but it comes at a cost.


Take UTA for example. The university’s men’s basketball team recently advanced to the Western Athletic Conference championship game against Grand Canyon University after a thrilling tournament run that saw them win their semifinal game on a last-second 3-pointer.

But as they prepared for their championship match, the team standing across from them was at a financial advantage.


Universities rarely release official NIL deal monetary numbers. Sutton estimated that by the end of next year, some of GCU’s men’s basketball players could be making more than triple what UTA’s players are pulling in from NIL money.


This financial discrepancy can often create talent differences on the court, furthering the divide between schools that are bringing in large amounts of NIL money and schools that are not.


“People who have the most money are able to attract the top talent,” Sutton said.

The talent gap isn’t so wide that UTA can’t overcome it. The Mavericks played Grand Canyon three times this year and were close in all three games — UTA held double-digit leads in two of them.


Schools like UTA used to be places for coaches to build a culture. Growing up, I’d go to games on campus and watch some of my favorite players for three or four years. The team had a motto, “championships are won today,” and players bought into that when they stepped on campus at 18 and left four to five years later with a degree.


Now, things seem different. If a player does well for the university, it’s likely they’ll transfer out to a bigger school. Chendall Weaver, a standout who won WAC Freshman of the Year in 2023, transferred to the University of Texas immediately after. Makaih Williams won the same award this year and immediately entered the transfer portal.


Sutton said the university celebrates those athletes at their new institutions. It gives the men’s basketball program a chance to sell themselves as a stepping stone to a higher level of basketball.


“It is impossible for UTA and other schools in the WAC to be able to retain talent that have the ability to go to the upper level,” Sutton said. “But if you can be the school that is the stepping stone program for the power five level, you will be a difference maker in your conference every year.”


It may be easy to sit back and complain about the changing landscape, but you can’t live life like that, said Ira Childress, senior associate athletic director for development. UTA has embraced the new system and is seeking ways to contend in the new world.


The athletics department has stepped up its NIL game over the last year with what they call collectives, where people can donate money to be redistributed to athletes. Arlington Advantage is a collective for men’s basketball and Dream City Sports is a collective that mainly focuses on women’s basketball and volleyball.


Sutton said the athletics department has three pillars in its approach to fans and potential sponsors for its NIL initiative.

  • Attend games

  • Renew or buy season tickets

  • Support NIL collectives


“I think that's really essential for UTA because I think you did see it in little parts of this year where basketball was humming and more people were in the building,” Sutton said. “[You] felt some type of energy and it was really cool to be around.”


The days of four-year players at UTA are mostly in the past. Only one men’s basketball team player has played four years with the program. None of the women’s basketball players have been on the team for more than three years.


Transferring from one college to another is difficult — I did it myself. Giving students an incentive to do so can be dangerous and antithetical to the goal of college athletics, which is to earn a degree.


If this is where the college game is now, I want athletes to keep their priorities straight as they navigate the changing landscape.

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