NCAA recruiting pay-for-play is here, and the only surprise is how fast it happened

A federal judge in Tennessee on Friday granted a preliminary injunction that prohibits the NCAA from enforcing its own rules against pay-for-play in recruiting. Effective immediately, name, image and likeness collectives can negotiate deals with recruits without fear of NCAA sanctions.

My first reaction to the news: This renders the entire plot of “Blue Chips” obsolete.

If you’ve never seen that classic 1994 college basketball film, here are the key details: Nick Nolte plays Pete Bell, a big-time coach (clearly modeled after Indiana’s Bob Knight) so desperate to get his struggling program back on track that he sells his soul and allows a booster to go buy some recruits. Stud center Neon Boudeaux (played by Shaquille O’Neal) gets a new car. The mother of Butch McCrae (Penny Hardaway) gets a house. And a big ol’ tractor shows up at the farm of Ricky Roe (former Indiana big man Matt Nover).

But an investigative reporter catches wind of the operation. Things don’t end well for coach Bell.



Federal judge blocks NCAA from enforcing NIL rules

I bring this up because in 1994, even a non-basketball fan walking into their local cinema would be aware that paying high school recruits was a cardinal sin. This assumption was so ingrained in the public that an entire film could be based on an NCAA violation without ever having to explain why it’s a rule.

The film came out Feb. 18, 1994, nearly 30 years to the day before Judge Clifton L. Corker of the Eastern District of Tennessee told the NCAA to bug off and let the Neon Boudeauxs and Ricky Roes of the world get their cars and cash.

The NCAA’s court losses have been coming so fast and furious recently that you really should take a moment to stop and reflect on how seminal some of these decisions are.

Until 2021, an athlete could lose eligibility if someone so much as bought them a hamburger. Today, thanks to a crush of states passing laws forcing the NCAA to allow NIL payments, Caitlin Clark can appear in a State Farm commercial and nobody bats an eye.

For decades, it was just accepted that players have to sit out a year if they transfer to a new school. In December, a judge in West Virginia issued an injunction allowing athletes to transfer and play immediately as many times as they want to.

And now, one of the bedrock principles of college athletics for the entirety of its existence — no giving money to recruits — has gone up in smoke in the span of three weeks.

On Jan. 30, Tennessee chancellor Donde Plowman wrote a fiery letter to NCAA president Charlie Baker ripping the organization for attempting to sanction the school over the recruitment of five-star quarterback Nico Iamaleava for entering into a lucrative NIL deal with Tennessee collective Spyre Sports. The argument itself — that the NCAA hadn’t explicitly said booster collectives can’t be involved in recruiting — was laughable. But it presented the perfect opportunity for someone to challenge the underlying rule.

Sure enough, the attorneys general of Tennessee and Virginia swiftly filed a federal suit contending the NCAA’s NIL restrictions violate antitrust law. Corker denied the plaintiffs’ temporary restraining order, but Friday, he issued a preliminary injunction that carries the same effect:

“Effective immediately, the NCAA … (is) restrained and enjoined from enforcing the NCAA Interim NIL Policy, the NCAA Bylaws or any other order authority to the extent such authority prohibits student-athletes from negotiating compensation for NIL with any third-party entity, including but not limited to boosters or a collective of boosters, until a full and final decision on the merits in the instant action.”

The NCAA can still take the case to trial and hope to restore its previous policies, but in both his TRO and injunction decisions, Corker ruled that “(the) Plaintiffs have demonstrated a likelihood of success on their Sherman Act claim.” They would be wise to save a few million dollars in billable hours on another losing defense.

Over the past three years, coaches and administrators have taken to calling the emerging impact of NIL in recruiting as the “Wild, Wild West.” Another popular line: “This is not how NIL was intended.” They and the segment of the public that feels similarly will presumably view Corker’s ruling as a nightmare.

I would choose another word: inevitable.

The NCAA had no choice in 2021 but to finally embrace NIL, because politicians known for wildly different opinions across numerous states had united around the cause. But it tried to do it with one foot in, one foot out. “OK, OK. You guys are allowed to make money. But we can still tell you who you are or are not allowed to receive said money from.”

It was the next antitrust suit waiting to happen, and the Tennessee case prompted someone to give it a shot.

“Against the background of the other pending antitrust cases against the NCAA … the significance of today’s ruling couldn’t be overstated,” said attorney Tom Mars, who represents Spyre Sports. “This being the first domino to fall, what happens in the other pending antitrust cases now seems almost inevitable. And the NCAA’s lawyers must know that.”

Meanwhile, even without legal intervention, the NCAA had long ago lost the battle against collectives. Whether its investigators ultimately got the goods on Tennessee, nearly every other major sports school now has operations making their own “NIL deals” with current and prospective recruits while pretending it wasn’t pay-for-play.

For now at least, they can end the charade.

“People are going to look at this (decision) as, ‘Wow, this is crazy,’ but this will actually help stabilize what’s going on out there,” said Walker Jones, executive director of Ole Miss’ Grove Collective. “The athletes can now gather all the information (about NIL opportunities) to make the most informed decision.

“It acknowledges the realities of the marketplace, instead of hanging on to an archaic model.”



That archaic model isn’t completely dead yet. Corker’s ruling is an injunction, not a final decision. And other ongoing legal cases addressing whether athletes should be considered employees or are entitled to a cut of TV revenue are years from being decided.

But even the most ardent advocate of traditional NCAA amateurism would surely concede that the party is over. Baker himself has already proposed sweeping changes that would allow schools to directly compensate athletes.

Somewhat sadly, though, we’re not likely to ever see a movie studio put out a reboot of “Blue Chips” starring, say, Zach Edey and Victor Wembanyama. No one would take seriously the conceit that the coach, not the NCAA’s rulebook, was the villain.

(Photo: C. Morgan Engel / NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

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