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Column: The case for paying everyone

This is what the NIL is for.

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Syndication: The Indianapolis Star Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK / USA TODAY NETWORK

Indiana softball’s magical spring came to an end in the NCAA Tournament with a loss to Tennessee.

Then Taryn Kern, a 2nd-Team All American, entered the transfer portal on Monday. Kern batted .404 on the season with 23 home runs and 68 RBIs. She led the nation in home runs and accomplished it all as a freshman. No other freshman cracked the top-20 nationally in home runs.

The day got worse as the baseball season came to a brutal end, falling to Kentucky while stranding seemingly a million runners on base. The broadcast ended with the commentators predicting that the Hoosiers would be back in the tournament next year, but following the Kern news, it’s easy to see why fans may not find that thought comforting.

In the age of the transfer portal and NIL, maintaining a nationally relevant program likely costs money. This is not to speculate on why Kern is leaving, we do not know and we won’t pretend to.

Mike Woodson has landed two top ten players in their respective classes in no small part because the basketball team has high-level NIL support, beating out Kansas in the case of Mackenzie Mgbako.

Even Indiana’s football program, which has struggled throughout its history, has gotten some NIL support from Indiana’s major collectives despite the team going 8-16 since the new NCAA rules were passed.

Some collectives, like that of the Hoosier Hysterics, make it possible for donors to specify that their money be used for football purposes.

With the recent successes of the baseball and softball teams this spring, message boards and the bird app have been abuzz with discussions of how the Hoosiers should approach the NIL landscape in these sports. Unsurprisingly, most of that discussion has been... obtuse.

One of the most popular defenses of the current model - emphasizing football and basketball at the expense of other sports - is that these two sports generate the most revenue. According to that argument, success in those sports will raise more revenue for the athletic department, which will somehow reach athletes on the non-revenue teams through something resembling trickle-down economics.

Aside from the fact that trickle-down economics doesn’t work in any arena, this line of thinking does not explain how athletic department revenue could figuratively be converted to NIL money for athletes in non-revenue sports.

Furthermore, USA Today recently reported that Indiana is already 13th nationally in athletic revenue among public universities. This disproves both the claim that the football team has to be competing at a high level or even good for the athletic department to be profitable, and the idea that high revenue will somehow benefit the non-revenue sports’ NIL situation.

Under the current “interim” arrangement, the NCAA prohibits NIL contracts between schools and their athletes. The money has to come from elsewhere.

I also think this argument misunderstands why the average fan donates to NIL initiatives. Maybe this is just me, but I would like my money to go to Indiana having the best athletes in every sport.

Having good players usually leads to winning, and frankly, I don’t have much of an investment in the athletic department’s profitability on a yearly basis. As a fan, I want Indiana to win games, and there are far too many examples in professional sports of franchises being driven into the ground by ownership groups more concerned with a bottom line than being competitive.

Calling this revenue-only approach market-based does not reflect the complexities of the existing NIL-market either. According to some market valuations, Livvy Dunne was a top 3 NIL earner despite not participating in a traditional revenue sport as a gymnast at LSU.

Even in Bloomington, there isn’t a ton of evidence to suggest that this approach will have the intended effect. Despite receiving significant investment from each of the big NIL collectives, the football team has struggled to retain its most talented players and has not built any serious momentum in the two seasons since NIL was introduced.

At the end of the day, the decision to fund certain athletes and not others largely comes down to the individual whims of those running the collectives. Most fans simply don’t have the financial ability to enter into meaningful contracts with their favorite athletes, so they donate smaller sums that can add up to the types of contracts that players like Kel’el Ware enter into when they get to campus.

Despite using terms like “aggregating” to convey a sense of collectivity, the only options that the Hysterics give their donors are to donate to the general fund or to the football exclusive fund. The HH collective also makes clear that Indiana men’s basketball is the priority, with similar language regarding its success fueling that of other sports sponsored by Indiana.

The FAQ page contains a question regarding supporting athletes of other sports. The collective makes clear that it will work with contributors on getting their money where it needs to/they want it to go, but the answer begins with this line:

“Yes. But Men’s Basketball remains the priority. That said, we have made deals with Football players and Women’s Basketball players.”

The collective’s website, which doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2022, doesn’t make clear which football players have entered contracts with the collective, citing privacy and leaving that decision up to the athlete. Events on previous deals with players are cited from 2021, two years ago.

To their credit, the Hoosiers for Good collective supports a broader roster of athletes, featuring water polo, tennis, and soccer players alongside the football and basketball players.

Rather than hiding behind misunderstandings of the current NIL market or flawed arguments about revenue sports helping everyone, collectives need to get with the times and start paying the best athletes who come to Bloomington - no matter what sport they play.

Campus Ink provides interesting alternative to the collective model, giving fans the opportunity to buy apparel directly from their favorite athletes. But a $65 sweatshirt purchase doesn’t have the same power as the deals collectives are able to broker, which in some instances exceed six digits.

I am not one to go so far as to say that the NIL or college athletics are broken, but if this new tool only serves to reinforce the inequities that this revenue vs. non-revenue distinction creates, it’ll be harder to defend as a positive thing for student athletes.

NIL funds are not capped or limited. There is not a pool of money available that will ultimately run out. Funds become available over time and anything collected can be raised again.

Athletes from other sports are not “taking” money from men’s basketball and football. It’s money they deserve as well.

Whether they’d like to admit it or not, these collectives have a tremendous responsibility in ensuring that the NIL rules can be vehicle for change in college athletics. This starts with recognizing that fans like seeing elite athletes in all sports - not just the ones deemed best for television.