Ryan Day: Ohio State seeking to find ‘sweet spot’ with NIL and recruiting

COLUMBUS -- Three letters have dominated discourse in amateur athletics over the past year or so: “N”, “I”, and “L”.

They stand for “name,” “image,” and “likeness,” a shorthand created last year with new laws passed in multiple states (including Ohio) to allow college athletes to sign endorsement deals or otherwise profit off the fame they have built while playing sports.

Those letters have trumped “NCAA” because the organization overseeing major college athletics hasn’t done much to regulate NIL’s implementation other than adopt an interim policy to allow it. That is a consequence of the NCAA suffering repeated losses in court, calling into question its ability to enforce existing rules let alone make new ones.

Different schools treating the situation differently has led to some confusion — and anger — as teams continue trying to build rosters through recruiting and transfers, but the temperature went up in the college football world this week when Alabama coach Nick Saban spoke publicly about Texas A&M and Jackson State allegedly scoring big recruiting victories via NIL deals.

“We were second in recruiting last year — A&M was first,” Saban told a group assembled to preview the World Games, in Birmingham, Ala., according to AL.com. “A&M bought every player on their team. Made a deal for name, image and likeness. We didn’t buy one player, but I don’t know if we’re going to be able to sustain that in the future because more and more people are doing it. It’s tough.”

That angered both TAMU coach Jimbo Fisher, who responded by implying Saban breaks the rules himself, and JSU coach Deion Sanders.

“We build him up to be the czar of football,” Fisher told reporters at a press conference in College Station, Texas. “Go dig into his past, or anybody’s that’s ever coached with him. You can find out anything you want to find out, what he does and how he does it. It’s despicable.”

While Fisher, a former Saban assistant, made multiple personal attacks, Sanders was more measured in his response.

“I still love him,” Sanders told Andscape.com. “I admire him. I respect him. He’s the magna cum laude of college football and that’s what it’s going to be because he’s earned that, but he took a left when he should’ve stayed right. I’m sure he’ll get back on course. I ain’t tripping.”

Saban later told ESPN he was wrong to use the word “bought” and to cite any schools specifically, but he stood by his overall point.

“I don’t have any regrets over what I said,” the seven-time national champion coach told ESPN.

Ohio State coach Ryan Day expressed his own views on NIL earlier this month to much less fanfare, but his concerns seem to mirror Saban’s.

“It’s a challenge because there are rules in place right now that are not being enforced,” Day said. “It does create hard feelings, and so again, that’s kind of where we are right now — finding our way in those battles.”

The NCAA reiterated May 9 that boosters are not allowed to be involved in recruiting and left open the possibility of punishing schools who have allowed them to be over the past year.

That would seem to be the No. 1 concern coaches such as Day and Saban have — that some schools have allowed boosters to engage with recruits (and transfers) while others have not.

“I think we all do much better when it’s black and white,” Day said. “It’s gray, and so I think the easy thing to do is throw up your hands and complain, but we’re gonna adapt and figure out a way to make it work for Ohio State.”

For his athletics department, that has meant evolving interpretations of how involved the school can be in hooking up players with potential business partners.

Ohio State also figures to benefit from the development of a pair of outside groups known as collectives that have come together to support Buckeye athletes, including one basketball player Tanner Holden cited in being part of his decision to transfer to Ohio State from Wright State.

“A big reason I chose OSU was for opportunities like this!” Holden wrote on Twitter in early April. “I look forward to raising awareness for local charities and getting involved in the Columbus community!”

Others have sought deals through a platform set up by the company Opendorse that works with many colleges across the country, while some have simply been able to set things up on their own with local car dealerships, restaurants and other businesses.

Many coaches and administrators have come out in favor of the idea of current players being able to make money from their fame while still in school, but most (if not all) oppose offers of endorsements being used in recruiting.

Day acknowledged frustration over the fact that trying to keep up in the current Wild, Wild West environment presents a dilemma.

“Well, I think there is risk everywhere,” Day said. “I think there’s risk if you do nothing. Then you get left behind. If you go to the other way, then there’s risk that you can get fired for cause for crossing the line. So finding that sweet spot is where the challenge is. When there aren’t clear-cut rules or rules that aren’t being enforced, then it creates hard feelings and unrest, and I think that’s where we are right now.”

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