NIL and College Football: Coaches Have Some NIL Concerns

Last Updated on February 3, 2023

Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Foundation, joined the podcast to discuss the concerns football coaches have about how NIL and college football will mix, particularly in tandem with proposed changes to transfer rules.

There were a lot of interesting nuggets in this one, including:

  • What recruits are already asking football coaches
  • How boosters are getting involved in NIL and why it’s concerning
  • Why you can’t talk about NIL without also talking about potential changes to the transfer rules
  • How NIL rights may return college football to some of the behavior seen in the 1970s and 1980s
  • How and why farm teams might emerge in college football
  • The impact of NIL in the locker room
  • …and more!

Todd Berry coached college football for over 30 years including head coaching jobs at Illinois State, Army and Louisiana-Monroe. An Oklahoma native and graduate of Tulsa, Berry took over directorship of AFCF on March 1, 2016.

The American Football Coaches Foundation is the professional development arm of the American Football Coaches association providing professional development and educational resources and tools to football coaches from high school to all levels of college football.

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Podcast Transcript

We’ve edited the full transcript below to focus on the highlights from the podcast.

Kristi Dosh and Todd Berry begin the episode with Berry talking broadly about pending name, image and likeness (NIL) opportunities which are expected to be afforded student-athletes in the near future.

Todd Berry

This is a topic that (football coaches have) been discussing now for the last probably five years, but certainly, with some of the recent events, whether they be judicial or legislative, there’s some impetus towards having to make some decisions.

I think one of the interesting things about this, a lot of times when we’re doing new things like this they become hypotheticals, you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen because it’s never been done. I believe that if you go back through college football history, you’re going to see a timeframe back in the 70s and 80s, which was when I was playing and coaching early on, a lot of these things were actually happening and so I don’t know that we need to think in terms of these being hypotheticals, I think we’ve already been down this road before.

While I think all of our coaches know that there needs to be some changes in the recruiting dynamic, I do think based off what is out there currently, and what people are saying, there’s some likely things that we can look back throughout history and say this is a probability rather than an exception, and it might not be what everybody thinks it’s going to be.

Kristi Dosh

Part of the problem right now is that we don’t know exactly what (NIL legislation) is going to be. We’ve seen some of the proposed legislation from the NCAA, but now you’ve got state legislation – some of which has already been passed and signed by Governors – you’ve got proposed federal legislation. Folks in athletic departments – coaches, student athletes – are trying to get prepared and plan for something that they don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like and that makes it tough for everybody.

Name, image and likeness + transfers creates “perfect storm”

Todd Berry

It does, because you have to come up with mitigation protocols for whatever ends up happening, and like you’ve mentioned, there’s dozens of potential outcomes. I think the ones that are the most likely right now is that we are going to have NIL in some form or fashion and in conjunction with this, which is, unfortunately, the perfect storm for coaches, is in conjunction with that, you’re going to have some kind of ruling on transfers.

One of the difficulties that we saw back in the 70s and 80s, and a lack of graduation rates, was that players were transferring all over the place, and they were tending to transfer for business reasons – for money. It wasn’t about playing time or getting a different type of degree at a different school. Many (coaches and administrators) back then felt like there needed to be changes to the environment, because (college football players) were athletes, they were basically semi-professional athletes. They weren’t students.

The Knight Commission stepped in and did some things back during that timeframe – took away the lavish dorms that everybody was building and the training tables and said, ‘No, we’re going to return these athletes to being students.’

Last January, there was a decision made that (football coaches) weren’t even going to talk about the transfer portal or the transfer rules (in 2020) and the rationale behind it was that we felt like we needed to spend all of our time on NIL to try to get NIL right, and then start talking about the transfer thing, but with some of the state legislatures doing what they did, it basically forced everyone to have to bring in the one-time transfer, which last year we voted to have a moratorium on it, and three months later, all of a sudden, we’re discussing it.

It’s the conjunction of those two things that create the most concern for coaches, as they expressed in January, and I’m trying to express to you now.

Kristi Dosh

What are coaches telling you they’re most concerned about?

Todd Berry

Most of our coaches believe, because of their own experiences – most coaches were student-athletes – so they understand that we need to have some things change, but one of the things that is very, very concerning is the idea which has been floated by not just the federal government, but the state legislators, is to allow the boosters to get involved. Anytime our boosters get involved, it becomes outside of the coach’s control.

I’ve had one coach that (told me) prospective student-athletes, recruits, are already asking about, ‘what kind of NIL deals are you going to guarantee me?’ For a coach, you’re not supposed to do any of it.

NIL could mean a return to lawless 1970s and 1980s in college football

Berry continues:

I did have one coach with a booster who has a player in their hometown that (the booster) really wants to see come to ‘State U.’ Well, the coach at ‘State U’ doesn’t think he’s a good enough player and yet this booster has already promised this young man NIL from that institution. That’s obviously very concerning. That stuff we had back in the 70s where the boosters were basically running athletic programs and the recruiting processes.

You add in the one-time transfer, and if the student-athletes Bill of Rights succeeds, then it’s not just a one-time transfer, it’s a multi-transfer – you can transfer whenever you want.

If you think about it from a player’s perspective, then the likelihood of all of them entering the (transfer) portal at the end of spring – the majority of your team entering the portal – to see if they can get a better NIL deal out of their current institution or if they can find a better financial opportunity throughout the course of the summer to go someplace else.

Our coaches are concerned with, if this is the case, then if all my guys are in the portal – and knowing that there’s basically no reciprocity, if I sign them to a scholarship, I’m bound to that scholarship and they’re not bound to me – then I don’t know what my team is going to look like August 1 when we start preseason camp. It’s basically going to be a summer of free agency to where everybody’s trying to get better NIL deals across the across the country.

College Football Farm Teams?

Berry continues:

With the idea of a one-time transfer, or a multi-year transfer, if I’m going to protect my program, recognizing that the rationale for the student-athletes is to do that, then I’ve got to protect the players that I have in the program that are going stay with me. I might lose five offensive linemen the day before camp starts, well, if there is this one-time transfer, then the smart thing for a coach to do is to set up a farm club.

If I’m an FBS program, I’m going to set up a farm club with (an) FCS (school) with the idea that if I lose those five offensive linemen, then I’ve placed high school players into these other levels with the idea that at some point in time, I’m going to take them back. It might be year one, it might be year four, just kind of whenever I have the need to bring them to my institution to fulfill my needs.

There’s concern that this is the direction this is likely headed. I think our coaches agree with this and then most of the recruiting is going to be done out of the portal.

If I’m a top five program, always a top five program in the country, then there’s no rationale for me to recruit a high school player because I can go to a Group of Five or an FCS – I can get a Group of Five All-Conference player who’s already proven and recruit them off their campuses basically using NIL to bring them to my institution.

Kristi Dosh

The most surprising thing you said was about this idea of essentially having farm teams, I had never thought about that and now my mind is sort of racing with what that could look like. To the best of my knowledge there’s no NCAA rule that would prohibit that from happening.

Todd Berry

The only thing that’s out there is the (prohibition) to be able to recruit a (student-athlete) off another campus. While it’s utopian in thought, the practicality is not very good, quite honestly, because one of the realities, these young people are not working coach-to-player, all this is done through third party involvement.

A young person decides to go to an FCS program, he’s done a backdoor deal in the recruiting process, he says, ‘Hey, I’m going to have a chance to go to Barry University again, one that’s going to pay big NIL amounts because their boosters are going to pay for this,’ even if the coach isn’t setting it up, then the boosters are going to set it up.

I think in all likelihood, if you have any type of transfer where you can transfer across or up (divisions) than the teams that have the best caché in relation to either exposure for the student-athlete or money to be able to give them, is going to start recruiting off other campuses. I think the natural progression is that the high school players are going to get left behind, and the smart coaches, if you will, are going to be able to place (recruits) into smaller programs with the idea that they’ll get developed in those programs and at some point in time, (the college coach will) need them back because they don’t ever know what their roster is going to look like until August 1 when preseason camp starts.

Kristi Dosh

One of the other things that you mentioned is this idea that student-athletes, or potential prospective student-athletes, are going to start asking coaches, ‘What is NIL going to look like for me if I come to your institution?’ Everyone knows that potential student athletes are going to be talking about this as part of their decision-making.

What are potential student-athletes asking coaches right now? What kind of information do they want and how are coaches handling those conversations?

Todd Berry

It’s difficult because they want to be honest with the student-athlete and say, ‘we’re not the ones that broker this,’ and yet they recognize that the student-athlete asking me that question, he’s asking every other university the same questions.

What I’m hearing from our group is (coaches are telling recruits), ‘Hey, we don’t know what this is going to look like, but we have a huge fan base and our fans’ passion for football and for ‘State U,’ you know they always tend to step up, all you have to do is look at these facilities that we have, these were built by our boosters.’

The “Death Knell” for Olympic Sports

Berry continues:

I think this is the death knell to the Olympic sports, because, again, if these boosters – the ones that are donating for facilities to try to get better recruits to improve the situation for all the athletes there on campus – I doubt very seriously that they’re going to be putting their money into the athletic programs, when the reality of it is, (they) can take that money and start basically buying players. They can put that money into autograph sessions and pay them and have them speak for my business.

Another interesting thing about name, image and likeness – it’s been ruled on by the courts as well – if I went out and mowed your lawn, and you gave me $1,000 to mow your lawn, well, that’s not the going rate for that service. And so, consequently, the courts can get engaged. The problem with name, image and likeness is that it’s all in the eye of the beholder. I wouldn’t pay a dime to have dinner with Justin Bieber, but other people might pay a million dollars to have dinner with Justin Bieber. It’s all again in the eye of the beholder.

That becomes a problem for the NCAA or whoever the legislative organization that’s going to look over this is because they said that there might be a third party, well, how are you supposed to suggest that all of a sudden for this donor that he gives a player $500,000 for an autograph session, how do you know that there’s not that kind of value in that individual’s request?

Getting back to my point, I’m very worried that that these people that have donated money to try to make sure athletic programs do well, the ones that tend to (support) football and basketball, they’re going to put all their money into trying to buy better players. Consequently, the other sports, the Olympic sports, the female sports, are really, really going to suffer from all this.

Our coaches believe the same thing, I’m not suggesting anything that coaches haven’t talked about, that this is going to be the end of many sports at the collegiate level, which is very, very sad.

Kristi Dosh

How many schools really have boosters like that, who are going to try to affect recruiting and try to induce student-athletes to go to a specific school? How widespread do you think that is?

Todd Berry

Many of the traditional powerhouses obviously have the numbers, they have the dollars, all you have to do is look at the facilities and the coaches’ salaries to suggest that that money will be diverted.

I want to see my program succeed (a booster asks himself). How do I make sure? Well, it’s in having better players. And so, consequently, I think a lot of that money will be diverted.

We can go back in history and look at a program that ended up getting the death penalty (SMU) for doing many of these things. It was not a top 10 program, but it had top ten dollars and so they were able to go out and become a top 10 program very quickly because they had enough donors that cared about football that were able to do it.

Kristi Dosh

Say NIL becomes a reality this fall or whenever, we know it’s going to happen soon, what role would you advise football coaches to play in this?

How do coaches control boosters?

Todd Berry

The biggest challenge is trying to control your boosters. That’s proven to have been very difficult in the past. We can look back to the 70s and 80s and see how difficult that was to try to control them to not do things that that are going to break the rules.

The other thing is just trying to figure out what your roster is going to look like, controlling your roster. When I was talking to the NFL general managers, we had a long discussion about this. The first comment was, ‘wow,’ the second comment from the general manager was, ‘How are you going to do this, this is basically unrestricted free agency?’

Because it is free agency, (student-athletes are) going to be able to negotiate their own deals. Maybe some people think this is a good idea. Our coaches support the idea that this is supposed to be the college environment, this is supposed to be about bettering yourself from a personal standpoint, rather than necessarily bettering yourself from a financial standpoint. If you want that, then go on to the pros. Let’s have options to do that.

I don’t think very many coaches are against that concept, but I think what we’re concerned about is the graduation rates are going to plummet. Every data point that the NCAA has suggests, regardless of sport, regardless of age, GPA, whatever, if you transfer, you’ve just lowered your chances to graduate. We’ve done such a wonderful job in college football with graduation rates, and especially amongst minority athletes.

We’ve done this phenomenal job and yet now we’re going to go back to this timeframe to when people are going to be moving from a financial standpoint, rather than because of academic (reasons).

College football coaching exodus?

Berry continues:

I have a lot of my coaches that said, ‘you know, this is basically pro football and this is not what I signed up for – if this goes through, then I’m out.’

I’m really worried about that. I’m really worried that we’re going to see a lot of our collegiate coaches leave college football.

I know I couldn’t do it. I’m obviously not coaching now, but I know that’s not what I wanted. I had plenty of opportunities to go the NFL, I wanted (the college) environment, I wanted this.

The college (coaching) space is going to be really, really difficult because you’re dealing with, again, no reciprocity, the student-athlete basically has all the choices, the universities, the teams, don’t have any protection at all. So trying to put together a roster every year, the idea of developing a player, is kind of going out the window because it’s going to be just about simulating a team, very much like the NFL does every year.

Kristi Dosh

I have fans who tweet me and say, ‘Well, why can’t it just look like professional sports?’ Because, in professional sports, competitive balance is largely controlled by having a draft and by not allowing free agency until you’re X number of years into the league. All of those things are only allowed by antitrust law because they’re collectively bargained (with a certified players union). And we saw the football players at Northwestern try to unionize years ago, and that failed. And then even if they had been successful, there’s a difference in private institutions versus public. In some states, employees of public institutions can’t unionize. Then there’s the whole discussion of whether student-athletes become employees or not.

You can’t just snap your fingers and make college athletics look like pro sports, because it’s not. And quite frankly, as somebody who’s a fan of the game, I don’t want it to look like professional sports. I watch very little NFL football, but I devour college football, I love it. There’s a different kind of passion and play there that I prefer.

While I’m fine with some of the things that are happening, others scare me as we talk about making it look more like pro sports and that goes back to something you said earlier about Olympic sports. The NFL isn’t running around funding a bunch of sports that lose money, but that’s what happens in college athletics. Football and men’s basketball fund most of the other sports in the athletic department. It’s just a different business model than pro sports and I don’t know how we reconcile what everybody wants and needs with this structure.

Todd Berry

One of the reasons people love college football is that the student-athlete chose ‘State U,’ and I’m a graduate of ‘State U,’ and he chose ‘State U’ like me because ‘State U’ is the best university in the country. I think that’s what brings in some of those passions. But if all of a sudden fans start seeing that the student-athletes don’t have any loyalty to ‘State U,’ they have loyalty to the dollar, then they’re probably not going to be quite as passionate about their team, because they’re recognizing (the student-athletes aren’t) all about ‘State U,’ they’re about dollars.

Student-athletes as employees?

Berry continues:

There’s a lot of our coaches who do believe that, and I can’t believe I’m even saying this, that maybe the only way out of this – if this is the direction it’s going – is to allow the student-athletes to become employees. It’s the only way you can put some restrictions on some things so it don’t get out of hand – or at least it’s somewhat controlled.

In the current environment that we’re looking at right now, there are no controls, if someone can put something in front of coaches to say, ‘Here’s some regulations and some rules to make this competitive and fair,’ our coaches could probably get behind some of this. But everything that we’ve seen so far has no chance of doing any of that.

NIL impacts in the locker room

Kristi Dosh

Last year I had former Clemson quarterback Taj Boyd on and we talked about NIL and he said some things I was surprised by and things I hadn’t thought of because I’ve never been a football player in a college locker room. He talked about some of the pressure that he felt even when he played from other players. Guys who wanted more carries, who wanted more playing time and we talked about how that would be amplified (with NIL).

If you’re talking about money being on the line, if these guys know that the more they’re playing and the more they’re shown on TV, the more marketable they are, and the more opportunities they have to monetize their NIL, what is that pressure going to look like on other student-athletes they’re playing with, but also, what are those conversations going to look like between those student-athletes and the coaches as they press for more playing time? What you think about how NIL impacts the locker room?

Todd Berry

Again, I think we can go back to the 70s. The division within the team was significant in the locker room, because it was a very selfish attitude, players were getting paid under the table for the number of touchdowns, or the number of carries, and if all of a sudden, some of those things went away, then obviously they had complaints.

Or, let’s say that a player had a really good deal going and they got beat out by another player. Then that other player who was maybe not getting much, he wants the same things the player in front of him was receiving.

The other problem that you have is the booster problems. This is real. If a booster’s paying X amount of dollars to make sure (his recruit is) out there playing and then maybe he’s not the best player, but that booster says hey, ‘I’ve tied money up in that guy, I want him playing.’ From a coach’s perspective, you get pressure from the boosters to play ‘my’ guy. I’m having to play this guy that maybe is not the best player just because otherwise I’m going to end up losing the financial resources of this individual.

I think Taj is correct, even though he didn’t go through that during the 70s, I saw it and it was real. It was a very selfish attitude in the locker room, which created divisions.

Then there was, again, this significant pressure from boosters, even from your administration, because sometimes the administration would lean on some coaches to play a certain player, because otherwise we’re going lose the donation of this booster.

Kristi Dosh

Knowing what you know about what happened in the 70s, is there anything you think can be done differently? How are you going to be advising coaches that they manage this situation?

Todd Berry

I think there’s got to be some detriment to the players bouncing around for money and I think the bigger part of this is not just the NIL, again, it’s the transfer part. Currently, we have a system set up to where there’s some restrictions; basically, if you’re going to transfer across or up, you have to sit (out) that year. That we’re losing that in conjunction with the NIL, the marketplace didn’t just went exponential on you.

It’s not just that I can basically pay a player, now I can take them off of another program. The two combined is where the real problem is.

If you were going to be able to pay your player and there wasn’t that opportunity to be able to recruit off another campus, this could probably be more controllable. I think that if it was just NIL, it would certainly be more controllable, and then we look at the transfer thing down the road, but the two together? I think all of our coaches would suggest the people advocating for this, at this point in time, don’t really understand what the outcomes are going to be.

While we can rationalize an awful lot of this, we do have some basis to look back on to say, ‘Here’s why all these (controls) were put in in the first place.’

Want more on NIL? Check our NIL Hub, full of articles and podcast episodes on various aspects of NIL.

Listen to more episodes of the Business of College Sports podcast here.

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