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Nebraska isn't worried as NCAA works to eliminate NIL collectives' involvement in recruiting

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The three-page document landed in email inboxes around the country early last week. For the first time in more than 10 months, the NCAA was officially weighing in on the most confusing topic in college sports.

The era of name, image and likeness (NIL) has been more gray area than black and white since going into effect in July 2021 with a cobbled-together and largely ambiguous interim policy as the only semblance of uniformity. What’s permissible? What isn’t? In many ways, schools and supporters were figuring it out as they went along.

Inside the walls of Nebraska’s compliance offices, staffers didn’t view the new guidelines distributed by the Division I Board of Directors as new at all but more of a reemphasis of existing rules. That’s a good thing for the Huskers as they continue to seek competitive advantages without running afoul of the NCAA.

“There’s nothing new in this document,” said Jamie Vaughn, Nebraska’s executive associate athletic director for compliance. “This could have been published last summer.”

Jamie Vaughn

Jamie Vaughn

Vaughn spoke for an hour last week on the topic on NU’s in-house radio show, “Sports Nightly,” as part of what has been a constant push to educate others on the ever-shifting NIL landscape. That includes players, coaches and fans who want to participate.

Collectives, too. If anything came from the recent NCAA guidelines, Vaughn said, it was a clear defining of collectives — a catch-all term for groups of varying sizes from a donor base that help athletes at a specific school monetize their NIL — as boosters.

And the long-standing rule for boosters still applies: They may not communicate with prospective student-athletes “for a recruiting purpose.”

“I think that’s really what’s become troublesome for most people is how this has crept into the recruiting space,” Vaughn said. “It was meant to be an opportunity for current athletes to make money off of their image, finally. But we work in a very competitive environment, so it’s become a way to try to get an edge in recruiting.”

The guidelines are retroactive, with the short-staffed NCAA indicating it may take closer looks at the most “egregious” possible violations from the past 10 months.

Headlines indicate there would be no shortage of cases to explore. A billionaire Miami booster announced a two-year, $800,000 deal with a men’s basketball transfer. Former NFL quarterback and Eastern Michigan star Charlie Batch offered transfer QB Caleb Williams $1 million to play at Eastern Michigan. A Texas collective paid Longhorn offensive linemen $50,000 each — mostly just for being offensive linemen. An energy bar CEO in Utah paid tuition for BYU’s 30-plus walk-ons.

Most schools and collectives, including at Nebraska, expressed no worry about the guidelines this week, said Opendorse official and NIL specialist Braly Keller. NIL deals are jobs, not pay-for-play agreements, and the scores of universities and collectives that use the Opendorse platform have been documenting proof of performance since the start.

Every part of the process — from pitch to payment — is timestamped within the operating system, including text chats. Husker athletes are among those asked to provide evidence of a job done. A photo at a speaking engagement. A video of a golf outing.

“Collectives and compliances offices for the most part are running toward the same goal,” Keller said. “They want to support student-athletes. They want to see their favorite athletes have success and they want to be sure it’s happening compliantly.”

When can a collective begin a dialogue with a prospective student-athlete who is a transfer or high schooler? Much remains left to interpretation, Vaughn said. There’s still a long-held belief, for example, that a booster can employ a prospect but not actively recruit them. A collective can lay out what a prospect might be able to earn at a school but can’t promise anything in exchange for a commitment.

“It’s what I’d call risky behavior,” Vaughn said. “But there’s a way to navigate it. What we’re trying to do at Nebraska — and what we try to do in every aspect of the compliance space — is not put our coaches or other people in the department at a disadvantage. We don’t want to be at a disadvantage, but we want to do things the right way. Integrity is in the fabric of what we do at Nebraska. But you can get your toes up to the line and still have integrity.”

It’s in the interest of the schools to educate their boosters because NCAA guidelines say schools are responsible for their behavior. Vaughn, Nebraska Athletic Director Trev Alberts and others have been out in the community often to meet supporters for that reason.

Nebraska may soon have three collectives, Vaughn said, with one having recently completed paperwork and another “working to establish itself.” The most high profile is Athlete Branding and Marketing (ABM), which began operating last August and reported in April that its 20-plus major members had raised almost $3.5 million for “NIL activities.” More than 90 Huskers — predominantly football and volleyball players — have made money through ABM-brokered deals. The company is also working to develop a financial support program for football walk-ons.

ABM — run by former NU football chief of staff Gerrod Lambrecht, who is a longtime close friend of coach Scott Frost — had a voice as Nebraska landed multiple notable transfers in the offseason. It met with defensive lineman and TCU transfer Ochaun Mathis this spring as he was contemplating his next college home.

Mathis and his mother, Ochana Daniels, have both told The World-Herald that NIL was not a major factor in why he chose Nebraska and that no specific promises were made.

“I’ve never spoken numbers, I’ve only spoken film and everything that’s going toward football and what’s going to make me a better player on the field,” Mathis said earlier this month. “Still to this day I don’t know what’s going on with the NIL thing. But I’m just going in with an open mindset of just going in there and having enough film so I can be able to support my family and get to the NFL draft and have a career down the line.”

Vaughn said Nebraska has set a goal of being competitive in the NIL realm without being too close to the cutting edge despite national skepticism that the declawed NCAA has the ability to enforce its own rules. No school has yet been penalized for violations as the organization works to avoid legal exposure.

NU believes it has nothing to worry about either way.

“This guidance is really telling us your donors, your boosters can’t actively recruit on behalf of the university,” Vaughn said. “They cannot have recruiting conversations with recruits (and) they cannot promise them something to get them to come here. Those aren’t new rules. I just think that people didn’t really understand contextually how to put NIL into the day to day of what we do.”


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