Miami’s Wong shows college sports hurtles toward free market

Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports
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An agent for a prominent college athlete finally said out loud what schools likely hear in private: Pay the player more, or he will transfer to a school that will.

The brazen demand made on behalf of University of Miami basketball star Isaiah Wong last week provided a rare, unvarnished glimpse into the way elite college sports have been transformed by student-athletes’ rights to earn money through endorsements.

Teammates are comparing contracts. Players’ financial backers are swapping barbs. And coaches and administrators are struggling to keep their rosters full – and players happy — without running afoul of the rules.

If Wong’s agent didn’t technically cross the bounds of what’s permissible — players can’t seek payment simply in return for a promise to play at a specific school – then he firmly planted his foot on the line, according to labor experts.

“We are rapidly moving toward professionalization at full market rate for these NCAA players,” said Michael LeRoy, labor law professor at the University of Illinois. “It’s very clear it’s really not about endorsements, it’s about paying guys for their performance.”

Until recently, endorsement deals – or any compensation other than scholarships — were strictly off limits for college athletes. Paying students was seen as a threat to the ideal of amateur sports. But legal challenges by athletes seeking to reap some of the billions of dollars schools were earning off of sports forced change. In 2019, California became the first state to pass a law allowing athletes to earn money on endorsements, autograph signings and other activities, and by July 2021, the NCAA lifted its decades-old ban.

The NCAA left in place only loosely defined guidelines: the deals could not be used to entice recruits or as a form of pay-for-play contracts.

Wong, who has apparently opted to stay at Miami, surely wasn’t the first player to have a representative make a demand based on a player’s perceived market value, and he won’t be the last, experts said.

“He was just the first to be so public about it,” said Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association.

Tens of thousands of athletes across many sports have cashed in, according to Opendorse, a firm that works with schools on player-compensation matters ranging from from brand-building to compliance.

Deals can be worth as little as a few hundred dollars; some reportedly top $1 million. Football players earn the most, followed by women’s and men’s basketball players, according to Opendorse. Endorsements can be found far and wide, even in seemingly low-profile sports such as golf, rowing and hockey.

So far, it’s only been individual players like landing big deals, but that could change. LeRoy, the labor law professor, wondered what would happen if players from the same basketball team made a joint demand for more generous endorsement pay, putting a program in a bind.

It’s easier for a football team to bounce back if players seeking better endorsements transfer to other schools because the rosters are larger than in basketball. But keeping everyone happy is a challenge for coaches.

“All 85 players are your roster and free agents every year,” Berry said. “This is a professional model. It’s not a collegiate model anymore.”

TCU football coach Sonny Dykes said recruits routinely ask about endorsement deals.

“Basically, all we can do is pass on a number and say, ‘Hey, you can talk to this guy, and he’ll tell you what we can or can’t do.’ It’s really that simple,” Dykes said. “The concern for me is that somebody makes a promise to a kid and doesn’t follow through. We have no control over that.”

In many cases, the people to call are the ones running so-called collectives, sports marketing agencies that have sprung up to support specific schools and facilitate deals between their athletes and businesses such as apparel companies, energy drink companies, car dealerships and restaurants.

At Texas, one group is dangling $50,000 a year to individual offensive linemen for work supporting community charities, such as in-person appearances, promotions or representation. At the University of Oregon, billionaire Nike founder Phil Knight is part of group helping Ducks athletes line up deals.

Nigel Pack, a men’s basketball player who transferred to Miami from Kansas State, signed with the software company LifeWallet for $800,00, plus the use of a car for two years. UConn basketball player Paige Bueckers last year was the first college athlete to sign a deal to represent Gatorade.

A large majority of athletic directors worry that collectives are improperly using endorsement contracts to recruit players from high schools or other colleges, according to a survey released Wednesday by LEAD1, an association of athletic directors at the 130 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

“This is a transformational period in college sports and the results of our survey illustrate that (athletic directors) are extremely concerned with a number of key issues,” LEAD1 President Tom McMillen said.

The NCAA, the governing body of college sports, has taken a mostly hands-off approach since allowing endorsement deals, and more than two dozen states have laws allowing endorsement deals. Most of the state laws include the ban on pay-for-play.

But as cases like Wong’s illustrate how quickly college sports is changing, there is new pressure to study the issue. On Thursday, the commissioners of the Southeastern Conference and Pac-12, two of the wealthiest leagues in college sports, were scheduled to meet with lawmakers in Washington to lobby for some federal regulations, which could include possible bans on using endorsement contracts as recruiting inducements and pay-for-play deals.

Leagues, schools and some coaches worry the new free-for-all upends competitive balance, disrupts rosters and pushes more control over athletic programs to outside forces.

What caught many by surprise is how quickly deep-pocketed collectives and wealthy individuals aligned with major colleges poured in to raise and dangle millions of dollars in front of athletes.

“Nobody anticipated these collectives forming a year ago,” LeRoy said. “It shows us how out of control the whole system is. It has become a way for schools to find a third-party payer for their athletic talent.”

Even financial backers can get caught off guard when an athlete decides the money isn’t big enough, or when a teammate perhaps becomes a financial rival.

Mit Winter, a sports law and business attorney in Kansas City, Missouri, said some deals are pushing the boundaries, and making it seem as if players are simply getting paid to play, as opposed to being compensated at market rates for endorsements.

“Arguably these deals are violating NCAA rules and sometimes even state laws,” Winter said. “That’s kind of the big question: Is the NCAA ever going to start investigating some of these deals?”

Some point to a future of collective bargaining between athletes and schools. That would mean schools treating athletes more like employees, which they have resisted.

Last September, the top lawyer for National Labor Relations Board said in a memo that college athletes should be treated as employees of their schools. That established a potential path for athletes to unionize or bargain over working conditions.

Collective bargaining would require some flexibility and creative thinking by schools and conferences. It could also let them bring their institutional power into negotiations with athletes, who may have competing interests, such as gender equity and different health and safety needs across multiple sports.

“It would be a nervous moment for teams and leagues. They don’t have experience with it and their TV contracts would be unsettled,” LeRoy said. “But at the end of the day, they would be able to get a stable kind of resolution to their labor problems.”

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.