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Collectives vs. Schools: USC’s “Student Body Right” Collective Highlights a Potential Power Struggle

Along with conference realignment, NIL has been one of the major talking points in college athletics over the past year. Its impact on recruiting, the transfer portal, and locker room chemistry has drawn no shortage of media coverage. While lots of attention has been placed on the various ways college athletes have benefitted from their newfound ability to profit off their name, image, and likeness, the most interesting development to follow since July 2021 is the various ways schools and their fans have handled NIL.

Because recruiting is the lifeblood of college athletics and is essential to have success on the field, court, ice, or pool, there was never a doubt that it was going to be impacted by NIL. In fact, some would argue that “NIL” has always been going on throughout the history of college sports, and only now is it actually legal. With that being said, the widespread abundance of boosters, alums, and supporters of a certain school funneling their money into a large “collective” to provide NIL benefits to their players was something many didn’t see coming.

In a little over one year, NIL collectives have fundamentally reshaped college athletics by becoming a critical component of athletic success by using novel techniques to compensate college athletes for their NIL. Nearly every power conference school has some form of a collective, and some schools have multiple of them. It seems like every day there is an announcement of a new collective being formed. You’d think that schools would be unequivocally thrilled to see their fans create collectives for their programs. How could it be a negative for them?

Before NIL, wealthy donors (aka boosters) had only one legal way to support their beloved alma mater and that was donating it to the school and athletic department. While television revenue has certainly exploded over recent history, many of the stadiums, practice facilities, locker rooms, coaching salaries, and recruiting expenses are helped paid for by boosters. Because supporters couldn’t legally “buy” players, they essentially had to buy infrastructure to put their school in the best position to win on game day.

Now, the existence of collectives has changed the whole equation. Yes, fancy facilities are nice, but having a nicer locker room than your opponent doesn’t necessarily help you win the game. Having better players does. This has led to money that once went to athletic departments and schools now ending up in collectives. And to top it off, the schools aren’t the ones controlling these collectives. The boosters are. In some cases, the schools and collectives have co-existed very well. In other cases, not so much.

Last week, a group of deep-pocketed USC Trojan fans and boosters announced the launch of a new collective titled “Student Body Right.” Amid the current competition in the recruiting landscape with big-time money being offered to blue-chip recruits, the group claims Student Body Right is essential for USC to properly compete with other top schools that feature collectives. While their plans are not finalized at the moment, their intent is to provide the equivalent of a base salary to every member of USC’s football team who is academically eligible. On the surface, it seems like a great thing for USC. The only problem is that those in power at USC don’t like it.

USC administrators see Student Body Right as “being an existential threat that could invite serious scrutiny if the NCAA opts to enforce its NIL policies” given its operation outside of the university’s reach. Earlier this summer, USC partnered with a media agency to establish “BLVD” to exclusively serve USC student-athletes through the development of NIL opportunities. This was USC’s way of entering the NIL space without relinquishing control over the process. Until last week, this was the only known form of an organization facilitating NIL deals to Trojan athletes.

But with Student Body Right launching, there is now a “competing” collective that doesn’t have the support of USC’s administration. Trojans AD Mike Bohn told the Los Angeles Times that “USC is not aware of a formal donor-created NIL collective” and “We ask any donors who would like to support USC’s athletes through NIL to please work with BLVD so that all activities are conducted in compliance with state laws and NCAA rules.”

Although the NCAA has set interim NIL policies, many believe that they haven’t and won’t be enforced. Although the ruling in the Alston case didn’t have any bearing on NIL, Brett Kavanaugh’s opinion was significant because he blasted the NCAA saying they aren’t “above the law” and “The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America." Many collectives are run by lawyers who don’t fear future litigation if the NCAA tries to restrict their operations. However, some schools like USC, which has faced NCAA violations in the past, aren’t too thrilled with having boosters operate on their behalf in securing NIL deals for their players.

Moving forward, the school vs. collective dynamic will be interesting to follow. One thing you always hear coaches and administrators emphasize is “alignment” between everyone involved in the program. Having the university resident, athletic director, head coach, and boosters on the same page is essential for a program to reach its potential. Boosters are a necessary component of every college athletic department. Without them, a program won’t have the resources necessary to compete at the highest level. However, if boosters aren’t aligned with the administrators and coaches at a school, problems can arise. There are realistic scenarios where a collective could offer a 5-star recruit a great NIL package to attend a school, but the coaches at that school don’t see him or her as a great fit for their program. The possible issues are numerous.

We’ve seen how a lack of alignment at places like Tennessee, Texas, and Auburn can negatively impact on-field results. Hopefully, those involved at USC and other schools who find themselves in similar situations can find common ground. They all share the same goal of winning, so hopefully, that can guide them in this ever-changing landscape of college athletics.

Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5

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