What NIL could mean for Lincoln Riley, Spencer Rattler and Oklahoma

OU is already laying the groundwork, but from the NCAA to Congress to the Supreme Court, potential legislation is slow to come and all over the place
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Winds of change are sweeping through the NCAA. But even in 2021, those changes can come at a glacial pace.

For instance, the discussion on athlete compensation for name, image and likeness rights (NIL) has been on the front burner for more than two years. And yet, NIL has only grown more complex.

Congress has gotten involved, but not fully. State legislators are anticipating laws passing in their states, but most of them won’t be coming any time soon. The NCAA could move in any number of directions, but is currently (prudently) waiting on a Supreme Court case decision.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Florida and New Mexico have passed legislation to implement embryonic NIL rules in their states — the first in the nation to do so — without knowing the full extent of the potential caveats and obstacles they’ll encounter.

On the local level, athletes and coaches have their finger on the launch button — but for current players, today’s think tanks will invariably work too slow.

At Oklahoma, for instance, Spencer Rattler is already being forecast as a first-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. It’s entirely likely that 2021 — his second season as a starter — will be his last in college. If that happens, there’s little chance he’ll get to sit at the NIL table. Endorsements and contracts as a professional will be far more lucrative.

“My family and I have been preparing for this since we heard of the rules changing and all that,” Rattler told Jason Kersey of The Athletic this week during a video press conference. “Just knowing what my family and I could benefit from, it's huge. I think it's gonna pass here in the summer, or when school starts.”

That’s an exceedingly optimistic timeline.

Currently, only 13 states do not have any NIL legislation in the pipeline. Oklahoma is one of 18 states that has previously introduced legislation, but it has been tabled here. The NCAA was scheduled to vote on it in January for possible August implementation, but the association instead delayed the vote as it considered the sweeping enormity of the one-time transfer eligibility exception, as well as how to manage the pandemic and its continuing fallout.

Oklahoma has forged ahead with “The Foundry” branding, an athletic department initiative that will help OU student-athletes maximize their visibility and earning potential.

“Educating and preparing our student-athletes so they can maximize their NIL value is important to us, like it is to every school, but it can’t be a’ one-size-fits-all,’ “ said OU athletic director Joe Castiglione. “We are gaining greater understanding of this new era as it continues to evolve.

“However, we want to set our program apart by understanding our students’ success begins at the core of self-awareness, meaning a better understanding of one’s own talents and gifts as well as the ways to properly accentuate them. This will not only help them understand creative and substantive ways they can engage in the marketplace, but also the business of legal aspects in maximizing opportunities to build their own personal brand.”

Castiglione is working with football coach Lincoln Riley and others on his staff to be ready when the moment comes — and it will come. But the complexities that lie within could have far-reaching and certainly unforeseen consequences.

“I would say we’ve done a lot of preparing within the athletic department,” Riley said this week. “I give Joe Castiglione and his department a lot of credit. They’ve really kind of kept all of us in the department on the forefront. We’ve been pretty proactive about our plans, which, there is a lot of planning around that.

“It will put athletic departments, coaches, administrators, everybody in a tough position. These are the people you are in charge of, but by rule, you are going to have no say or no involvement in this. But ultimately, we all know that we are all going to be responsible for it.”

Riley said previously that Castiglione and OU “understood early on how the game had changed in terms of maximizing exposure and staying on the cutting edge of branding and technology. It has been a priority for us for a few years and we’ve committed resources and gotten results that have drawn a lot of national attention to our program and our players.

“Now we anticipate that we’re going to be able to help our players achieve their visibility in new ways. … The proof is here at OU.”

And not just in football. Softball coach Patty Gasso agreed with Riley that OU athletes have a leg up.

“All you have to do is watch our program for a short period of time and you can see how these athletes are recognized from coast to coast,” Gasso said. “It really doesn’t matter where we play, they’re very well known. The level of their play, combined with the power of the OU brand, makes for a very special opportunity and experience at Oklahoma, and it doesn't end when our players leave here. It builds to a high level here, but then they carry that for many more years and remain among the highest-profile figures in our sport.”

Even new basketball coach Porter Moser, with his deep Chicago roots and decade at Loyola University, felt the power of the OU brand and its allure to athletes — and coaches, too.

“That brand is of excellence, and to sell excellence,” Moser said last week, “I can’t wait to use it. The brand of just that logo, ‘OU,’ you know what OU is. Trust me. I started out the last 10 years putting ‘LU’ on my shirt, and then (people) say, ‘What the hell is LU?’ Now, they know what that brand is in Chicago, but they didn’t.

“Everybody knows what OU is. Everybody knows what OU is.”

NIL isn’t about schools paying players. It’s about players being allowed to secure their own financial opportunities, mostly through individual appearances or social media endorsements. It’s the same thing that Johnny Manziel and Todd Gurley and others got in trouble for: selling their autograph, being compensated for their time, making money off their brand. Only now, in the age of social influencers, it won’t be a few hundred bucks under the table. It’ll be potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars signed into a contract with the blessing of the schools and the NCAA.

In July 2020, Opendorse estimated Rattler could bring in $827,102 a year. He’s apparently worth $7,492 per Instagram post, and $461 per Twitter post.

And that was before he officially won the starting job. Now imagine what he could earn with a second Big 12 Championship, a College Football Playoff appearance — maybe even a national title and a Heisman Trophy.

Schools — coaches, administrators, advisors, etc. — will help the players in an advisory role. But there won’t be much external involvement beyond that.

One potential tangle involves businesses who have an existing sponsorship with the university. Love’s Travel Stops, for instance, has long been a corporate partner with OU. Because of that prior business relationship, it’s widely believed that Rattler or others won’t be able to strike up their own private endorsement deals with Love’s — or any other business that sponsors or advertises with OU athletics.

That’s one way the NCAA is trying to keep the foxes out of the recruiting henhouse, so to speak — in other words, trying to maintain competitive balance and avoid recruiting violations by keeping the schools out of the NIL business.

OU’s marketing director introducing its recruits to third-party corporations for financial gain — that’s an endless wellspring from which NCAA violations might flow.

Rattler, the star of a Netflix documentary series when he was still a high school player, is extremely marketable. So, too, is Caleb Williams, the SI All-American quarterback expected to slide into the job when Rattler leaves.

Rattler may be gone when NIL finally hits (either nationally or in Oklahoma), but Williams and others still here in 2022 and beyond likely will have ample opportunities.

And it won't be just quarterbacks, obviously. Riley has tried to anticipate some of the complexities of NIL legislation — of some players getting more deals and bigger paychecks than others, of players in general being consumed with the process of marketing themselves rather than focusing on football and school. He thinks OU has laid the groundwork for something the school can sustain — and something that will benefit the players.

“It’s going to be interesting as we go forward,” Riley said. “We’re going to have to prepare. We’re also going to have to adjust because there’s a lot of different ways that this legislation can go. For us, our team is aware that we’re making the necessary preparations.

“I think the way we handle it with any of our players is just like we do on-the-field recognition, awards, anything individual. We want guys to have individual goals. Of course, we want them to have success personally. But nothing ever here at this program will come in front of the team and the team’s success. Ultimately, when the team has success, it will create more opportunities for the individuals. We’ll definitely be on the forefront, but that’s going to be our place with it. That part’s not going to change.”

Rattler said he and his family have been thinking for a while now about what potential opportunities might be available to him.

“I don’t wanna say any right now and hurt anybody’s feelings,” he said, “but I’ve got a bunch of businesses I’ve got planned and companies we could do some work with in the future, trust me.”

Rattler said it’ll be “a blessing when it comes,” but he’s not focused on NIL right now. He’s finishing up his first spring practice at OU, and he has improvements to make heading into Year Two.

“Right now,” Rattler said, “my mindset is just on football. All that fun stuff with NIL, that’ll benefit myself and my teammates. I’m looking forward to that, of course. But the goal right now is just football, football, football.”