OPINION: Stern: NIL deals creating murky waters for college football

Arch Manning
Photo credit Tim Warner / Stringer / Getty Images

Many years ago -- in a galaxy far, far away -- top-recruited high school players made college decisions by determining which schools offered them the best chances at developing into an NFL pro and winning Division I championships. While this criteria remains in place across the nation, the ability for players to make money playing college sports has quickly become one of top deciding factors when selecting a school. And, as a result, the landscape for student-athletes and prospective players has been completely altered.

A student-athlete's goal is to ultimately reach the NFL. But the harsh reality is that only few will. A recent study conducted by Sportskeeda determined that just 1.6-percent of college football players reach the NFL. And this means the mammoth 98.4-percent majority will never suit up at the pro level. And, more importantly, they won't be given opportunities to further their revenue stream on the field after graduation.

Several recruiting firms and agencies are tasked with helping student-athletes navigate the complex landscape. As an unbiased, thirty-party voice, they can offer guidance on what options may fit best. While the opportunities to profit off Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) are special, Premier Football Consulting CEO and consultant Nico Papas believes it's important for student-athletes to look at the bigger picture.

"[NIL] shouldn't be the ultimate decision maker, but it should be a factor in the decision making process," Papas told CBS Sports Radio. "We try to help our student-athletes by trying to get an understanding of how each program and school approaches NIL, which then allows us to inform our clients what their earning potential is."

Sure, student-athletes can take their talents overseas, or participate in one of the lesser pro leagues like the XFL or USFL. But these players won't generate even a comparable amount of money to what they could stockpile in the NFL. And even if they do reach the top league, the odds of flaming out within a few years are rather high.

No matter how up-and-coming players looks at their earning potential, there's a limited window for financial success. Which means each opportunity to reel in dollars is that much more critical. This reality has created a need for players at the high school level to educate themselves on college sports economics, and learn what they should be searching for.

"It's about gathering the details. A lot of students go into this type of process without the right type of knowledge or the right experience about how this all works," Papas said. "And when players are offered certain amounts of money, certain goods or services, whatever it might be, we want to make sure they're asking questions about the specifics."

Caleb Williams
Photo credit Tom Pennington / Staff / Getty Images

While a combination of factors -- best perceived fit, parental preference, and past exposure -- play a role in this equation, it's ultimately up to the student-athlete to determine what they value the most. The weighing of benefits and drawbacks between potential landing spots is a balancing act that lasts until the choice is announced. And for players that come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, deciding which college to attend becomes the most important process of their lives.

Although whichever program a student-athlete joins can largely dictate their NIL compensation, it isn't the sole determinant. For every prized recruit who cashes in on their marketable image, diamond-in-the-rough players discover ways to sell their brand in a unique manner, and defy the odds.

A prime example is Division III receiver Jack Betts, who's entering his senior season at Amherst College. Upon the passing of NIL regulations, which came two years into his collegiate career, Betts sent out roughly 15-20 emails a day to various brands he was interested in collaborating with. Knowing he lacked the glitz, glamor, or prestige of big-name college football players, Betts used a different pitching point when reaching out to potential partners.

"These people aren't going to partner with me because I'm a Power 5 athlete who plays on TV every single Saturday. They're going to want to partner with me because of who I am as an entrepreneur,” Betts told CBSSR. "I have a two-headed approach. It's first my NIL inquiry email -- which is a cold email I send -- and I accompany that with my NIL cover letter, because these companies don't necessarily have time to Google who I am and scour my social media."

As the son of two lawyers, Betts had a steady support group and the access to those with knowledge of NIL's legal component, something that provided an advantage in his quest to be a trailblazer for lesser-known college football players. With just 138 receiving yards in nine college games, Betts boasts five times the number of endorsement deals (35) as receptions (9). And while NIL does provide student-athletes chances to gain compensation and leverage, it also comes with some noteworthy drawbacks.

"The motivation behind it was good-hearted, but now people are finding ways to take advantage of it -- which is disheartening to see when a lot of folks like myself are trying to do it the right way," Betts said. "The type of waters we're beginning to trudge into are dangerous. And while I understand a lot of major schools are going to be using that as a strategy to persuade bigger athletes to come, I don't think that's what NIL was supposed to be about."

Just like any other legal vice in society, the decision to allow student-athletes to earn money has both positive and negative outcomes. And as this new era continues to evolve in the ever-growing college football universe, it'll be up to those involved to try and sift through the variables at hand and create a more level playing field for everyone.

Jack Stern is a columnist, anchor, and associate producer for CBS Sports Radio. You can follow him on Twitter @J_Stern97.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: Tim Warner / Stringer / Getty Images