Harrison: This NIL thing has a chance to actually work

These are screenshots of the TikTok account of Lobo QB Connor Genal, and his more than 300K followers and more than 6 million “likes”. (TikTok screen shot)

Let me be the 34,591st to say that I don’t understand the full implications that Name, Image and Likeness opportunities will have on college athletics. Most of you don’t either. Now that the NCAA has cleared the way for money to flow – with some restrictions set by individual schools and states – we all will learn as we go.

My first reaction, however, is absolute satisfaction for somebody like Connor Genal, a walk-on quarterback at UNM who was featured in Geoff Grammer’s report for Thursday’s Journal.

Genal already isn’t getting an athletic scholarship and played in two games during the pandemic-pockmarked 2021 season. Walk-ons in general don’t play as part of the plan, lest things go very good or very bad. (A seven-word prediction for the 2021 Lobos: It will be something between those extremes.)We haven’t yet heard any news of it happening, but if Genal can monetize the 300,000-plus followers on TikTok watching him and his bros do … whatever they do, more power to him.

Mind you, that’s not attitude from the “kids, get off my lawn” demographic. I’ve always been a guy who can write and spell, but with no idea how to make money. Somebody I used to be close to couldn’t spell ‘cat’ given the C and A, but from his days as an elementary school kid, he’d pick up an extra Snickers bar for 25 cents at the convenience store, then find some energy- and sugar-deprived kid who’d pay a dollar for it in class that afternoon. He could turn a buck, would get rich and retired young.

Similar ingenuity, drive and humanity shown by some of the young people around us is truly fascinating and inspiring. We expect much of that to surface in this new era of athletes-turned-self promoters. But even if it’s the obvious – a golf star like UNM’s Sam Choi giving lessons and getting paid the market value, for example – the remedy is working.

It is time to celebrate that the NCAA at long last has gotten out of the way – after generations of contorting and exerting to keep athletes as indentured servants.

Stepping aside is all the NCAA has done, really, for now though. It’s said it is fine for athletes to follow the NIL rules in place in their states, leaving it to their schools to police the activity. The Legislature here, in a bipartisan effort from Reps. Mark Moores (R) and Antonio Maestas (D), got a law passed this session. Prescient, yes, but just in time for New Mexico to keep up.

And as it is time to rejoice for the current generation, a moment of silence for those who came before. Former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who helped his team to the 1995 national title, was the Norma Rae of this movement. The pivotal day he learned his avatar was featured in a video game without his permission or pay led to this. His antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, filed in 2009 and didn’t get to trial until five years later, yet laid the groundwork for NIL legislation, but didn’t really do much for him.

There are, of course, detractors. I saw this one from Dick Vitale on Friday where he tweeted:

“Coaches now have added tasks -1 managing a roster due to transfer portal – 2 must watch for jealousy in locker room due to NIL / some players make more $$$ can create problems with TEAM MORALE – 3 dealing with social media / 4 oh by the way Coach – Recruit & WIN BABY !”

Maybe. But the transfer portal has been alive and kicking for some time now. So has internal jealousy, for myriad reasons. And show me a pro sports team where the salary disparity between the highest and lowest paid isn’t a factor of 20.

Meanwhile, Vitale’s pinned tweet on Twitter is a plug for a famous insurance company. The coaches for whom he shills have been able to profit from their NIL since the days of peach baskets and leather helmets.

There is cause for optimism this can work. Dustin Maguire, a former college basketball guard at Northern Kentucky turned attorney and NIL specialist, says athletes in all sports – not just football and basketball – will capitalize.

Social media is the big reason. Hopefully its creative use – a $45 video chat on Vidsig, or a Cameo messages for $50 a pop – also will mean athletes can do so without having to flock to the coasts, their already significant magneticsm an annoyance to those in the heartland. The Cavinder twins, massive social media and women’s basketball stars, got a major deal with a mobile phone compnay and have risen at Fresno State. So there.

There will be creative competition, and some athletes won’t be cut out to be entrepreneurs of course. Some will get so big that they might retire from sports – maybe even in season.

UNM and other schools won’t be paying their athletes anything – they will be third parties – but they do have oversight of their athletes’ NIL deals. Lobo athletes won’t be allowed to display school marks or logos or do any of this on campus. Too bad. Maybe one day they can, and the school can get a cut – you know, be in business together. Universities need to cultivate every source of income possible, after all, to make their current athletics model work – assuming we still want that.

And agents? Athletes can hire them to represent them to handle their NIL deals, but those same agents are not allowed to advise them on professional athletic opportunities.

Good luck policing that.

And good luck to all the athletes with opportunities at their feet or, more likely, buzzing their devices.

On Fourth of July weekend, when Americans celebrate everything American, it’s at long last capitalism at work for people who never should have been excluded from the process. God bless baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, Chevrolet and the right to passively watch somebody do silly stuff on our mobile phones.

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