Isaiah Wong has threatened to transfer if his NIL compensation is not increased. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
STUDENT ATHLETES

Isaiah Wong, NIL, & What the NCAA Can Learn from the Miami Hurricanes

The NCAA does not want athletes like Wong threatening to leave their schools over NIL deals. Thankfully, there’s a way to make such instances far less common.

Nobody could have seen this coming. Except for the folks with eyes, ears, and the most rudimentary critical thinking skills.

Name, image, and likeness, whose legalized monetization we were told would not be used as a recruiting tool or as a pay-for-play model in college sports, is being used both as a recruiting tool and a pay-for-play model. That’s probably been happening since NIL went into effect last July, but on Thursday night, we saw it play out publicly on Twitter.

Witness the curious case of Isaiah Wong.

If you’re not familiar with the situation at the University of Miami, it comes down to this: Life Wallet CEO John Ruiz is a billionaire Hurricanes booster whose company signed Kansas State basketball transfer Nijel Pack to an $800,000 deal to promote the brand. Pack then transferred to Miami. Isaiah Wong, the leading returning scorer for the Canes, also had a deal with Life Wallet that was, it seems, for less money.

Wong now wants to renegotiate his fee. Failing that, he wants out of Coral Gables entirely.

Three things can be true at the same time:

  1. Wong asking for more money because he feels his performance in leading Miami to this year’s Elite Eight makes him worth it is the very definition of pay-for-play, something the NCAA prohibits.
  2. Life Wallet’s clear pay-for-play relationship with Pack, Wong, and potentially other Miami student-athletes should technically make those athletes ineligible to compete for the Hurricanes, as outlined in the university’s student-athlete handbook (yes, the words “should technically” are doing a ton of work here).
  3. Wong should be able to demand the money he feels he’s worth, and if he’s not going to get it at Miami, he should be free to enter the transfer portal and look somewhere else.

Acknowledging all three points is not the same as saying everything happening here is well and good and that we should all move on. This situation has brought to light a few very real problems with the NCAA’s lack of structure around NIL rules.

For one thing, there are not clearly defined rules, making it much easier for Miami or Ruiz to skirt “pay-for-play” by simply insisting Pack’s deal wasn’t contingent on him signing with Miami — a patently absurd premise, but one you can’t really prove wrong.

Sign Up For Our Newsletters

Get on our list for sports business, industry trends, interviews, and more.

It’s on the NCAA to figure out what that solution is, and it may as simple as allowing pay-for-play. We don’t know that, however, because the NCAA does not even have a single, unified NIL policy that applies nationwide. Right now, it has an interim policy in place that was rushed through before July 1, 2021 that could be summed up in a single sentence: Let players make money but don’t use it to recruit and don’t tie it to in-game performance.

But there’s another issue at play here — and if addressed properly, it could cut down on (though not eliminate) this feeling that we are in the NIL Wild West and that Wong/Pack situations are ready to pop up across the country.

The permanent policy, when implemented, needs to be focused on athlete welfare rather than restricting schools. That means putting the infrastructure in place — everywhere — that will provide guidance from start to finish so that athletes can put themselves in the best possible situation.

Universally, schools need to invest in in-house NIL departments that can handle the vetting of brand opportunities, negotiating on behalf of or alongside athletes, and educating them on potential business opportunities.

Many schools have taken steps in this direction on their own. Take St. John’s, which recently introduced a minor in sports leadership and branding, as an example. The new program is aimed at student-athletes but available to everyone, and was designed to develop “financial literacy, strategic leadership in a global environment, digital marketing, sports marketing and media, social media in sport, managing sports careers, and entrepreneurship.”

This is a good start, but the key is that it’s not enough. There’s simply no way one could reasonably expect a college student — particularly one whose academic interests are not geared toward business — to be able to handle the complexities that NIL throws their way.

Miami isn’t entirely to blame for not having that infrastructure in place, either. The NCAA kicked the NIL can down the road for a decade before congress essentially forced it on them last year with virtually no time to prepare and no clear guidelines. As a result, schools have effectively flown blind over the last nine months, reacting to the changing landscape while dealing with everything else athletic departments deal with — and oh-by-the-way, doing all this during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic — rather than having the luxury of being proactive.

And that’s not to say Wong would have been helped here, either. He may have understood the contract he was signing with Life Wallet or had people around him to help explain it to him. But this situation will continue to crop up, and it would help if every school had a department that could sit down with the next Isaiah Wong and lay out the following:

  • The amount of money Life Wallet is giving him is not contingent on his on-court performance in the upcoming season. If it was, it would be a violation of NCAA rules.
  • It is not subject to change based on how much other athletes sign for
  • It cannot be renegotiated in the event Wong feels that he is worth more money than he is guaranteed
  • If he disagrees with any of the above, he can walk away before signing or try to negotiate clauses in his contract that address those issues

Again, it’s possible that Wong’s agent went over all of that with him and he is merely an exception to the rule. But Miami is in a rough spot right now and can do itself some favors by expanding the guidance it offers for NIL. This is what Miami offers, as taken directly from its student-athlete handbook:

The University of Miami’s student-athlete NIL rules

Bullet points 4 and 5 are the sticking points here because the school basically prohibits the establishment of any sort of internal department that would look out for the welfare of athletes. It’s understandable because you don’t want a situation where the university is facilitating deals, as this comes dangerously close to pay-for-play. There does, however, need to be a carve-out for a university employee who can advocate for or alongside the athlete.

When the NCAA releases its full NIL policy — whenever that may be — education and advisement opportunities should be specifically laid out in plain terms. In fact, they should be part and parcel of the entire process.

In typical NCAA fashion, the organization can make all this as complicated as it wants to ensure it retains the increasingly thin veil of amateurism. Regulate the number of NIL compliance and education officers. Specify who they can and can’t be, and when they can and can’t communicate with athletes and third parties. Heck, make them all wear bowties and sequined vests if you think it helps. Just get something down on paper that lays out that it is okay for schools to help their athletes make the most out of the opportunities in front of them. Doing so will bring us a lot closer to where we need to be.

It isn’t going to stop athletes from transferring to somewhere they could earn more money, nor should it. Players should be free to explore those opportunities.

These measures will, however, stand a chance of cutting down on the number of athletes who feel they have to.

Sign Up For Our Newsletters

Get on our list for sports business, industry trends, interviews, and more.

Subscribe

Enter your email below