SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Within the coming weeks, the NCAA plans to crack down on boosters who are funding name, image and likeness payments to athletes, payments the association says are violations of long-standing NCAA rules. NCAA Council chairman Shane Lyons told CBS Sports the association’s ruling body is motivated to push back against what is becoming a burgeoning scandal of disguised “pay for play” in college athletics.
“How are they having conversations [with athletes]? They’re boosters,” Lyons said Tuesday during the Fiesta Summit, a series of conference spring meetings. “We’ve never let boosters be involved in the recruiting process. Where did it go off the tracks? … The collectives are boosters.”
Those collectives — of which some estimate there may be more than 100 — emerged as an unintended consequence of what has basically become unchecked NIL benefits. The heads of some of the larger collectives are well known to both coaches and administrators.
John Ruiz Jr. is a billionaire alumnus who leads a University of Miami collective and has become the face the NIL collective issue. he is also an attorney, the son of Cuban immigrants who attended Miami when its football dynasty took shape in the 1980s.
“My platform is very consistent with all the rules with NCAA and state law,” Ruiz told CBS Sports. “We probably have a more robust compliance system than the schools or the NCAA itself. I’m extremely comfortable. This is totally kosher. We have legitimate companies.”
Ruiz has not heard from the NCAA regarding his NIL sponsorships since launching his collective earlier this year.
Per NCAA rules, boosters are not allowed to pay players directly or be part of a university’s recruiting process. The NCAA defines boosters as “representatives of a school’s athletic interests”. That definition extends to supporters who have made contributions to a school’s athletic department, arranged for employment of athletes and/or assisted in providing benefits to athletes or their families.
Once a person is designated as such a representative, they “retain that identity forever,” according to the NCAA. In the past, the NCAA has used a broad interpretation of that definition to penalize schools.
The potential legal rub for the NCAA’s actions would be defining a “booster” in this highly litigious environment.
“I’m a seasoned lawyer. I do high-level litigation,” Ruiz said ominously. “What would happen in a court of law if someone were to challenge what we would do? We actually require work for pay.”
Ruiz’s involvement in paying athletes for promoting his companies via social media and videos could be a test case for the NCAA if it chooses to take on NIL after months of inaction. NCAA rules — and some state laws — mandate that an athlete must perform some task or action other than playing football in exchange for their compensation.
“The guidance [from the NCAA] is, ‘You’re in violation of the rules because the rules haven’t changed,'” said Lyons, who is also the West Virginia athletic director.
WVU athletes are presently benefitting from the Country Roads Trust, a collective run by former Mountaineers AD Oliver Luck and Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick.
Collectives are third-party entities that develop financial opportunities for college athletes. They have emerged as NIL brokers of varying levels of sophistication. They can be part of a larger company as a for-profit or nonprofit entity. In the vast majority of cases, there can be no relationship with a school. Of course, some collectives are headed by well-healed alums who have no problem saying they are interested in good, ol’ State U prospering.
A rules subcommittee of the NCAA Transformation Committee is currently reviewing some of these issues. A two-year study by a committee to regulate NIL was basically ignored by the NCAA last year amid fears of legal liability.
Since NIL debuted July 1, 2021, the nine months that followed have lived up to predictions of the recruiting landscape becoming the Wild, West West.
“I think NIL would have been infinitely better off if we have implemented the dozen or so guardrails that we had in place,” said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, a member of that original NIL committee. “There was some clear language about inducements for initial enrollment and transfers, which obviously are being widely flaunted at this point.”
Lyons added: “I think you’ll see something in the coming weeks that in short order is going to provide some of that message to the membership. ‘Here’s the guidance [for NIL].'”
Any pushback from the NCAA would require the association’s enforcement arm to take quick action. So far, it has remained on the sidelines as NIL has been trending towards direct inducements and pay for play.
The NIL discussion rose to a din last week when the NIL agent for Miami basketball player Isaiah Wong demanded more money after Kansas State transfer Nigel Pack got a two-year $800,000 deal from Ruiz’s collective. Reports that Pittsburgh star wide receiver Jordan Addison is eyeing a transfer to USC — allegedly being contacted with an NIL offer from a Trojans collective before he was even in the transfer portal — has dominated talks at the spring meetings.
“That’s the [NCAA] Board of Governors telling the Jon Duncans of the world what’s happening out there is not right,” Lyons said.
Duncan is the NCAA enforcement director.
“I have some coaches call me and say, ‘I don’t know what to do about this booster because he’s offering all these kids NIL money and I don’t even want the kid’,'” shared Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. “All this was predictable. … It’s coming to fruition at this point.”
One high-profile coach at the Fiesta Summit said recruiting discussions with recruits these days begin with NIL possibilities. A basketball coach relayed the story of a mid-major coach who was contacted by an agent.
“Two-hundred thousand dollars [in] 48 hours or my guy is in the portal,” recalled the coach while relaying the context of the conversation.
One coach compared the current uproar over NIL to “cost of attendance on steroids”. Cost of attendance payments were implemented in 2015 to ensure athletes were able to more appropriately cover the actual cost of attending college. Those payments generally range from $2,000-$5,000 each school year.