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Lane Kiffin & the NIL Debate: To Cap or Not to Cap?

Updated: Jul 20, 2022

If you’ve been following the drama of NIL and the growing utilization of the transfer portal in collegiate athletics, you know the two phenomena are closely intertwined. Many point to the recent controversial transfer of Biletnikoff-winning wide receiver Jordan Addison from Pitt to USC after reportedly being offered an NIL deal that will pay him more than double what Pittsburgh Steelers rookie George Pickens will make this upcoming season. Others point to the recent highly-publicized comments by Nick Saban in which he claimed Jimbo Fisher and Deion Sanders bought their respective recruiting classes by exploiting the allure of NIL. Both cases highlight the unprecedented nature of the post-NCAA v. Alston (and, consequently, post-amateurism) collegiate landscape, and this unfamiliarity has bred uncertainty about the sustainability of college sports under the current NIL model. One coach, however, seems remarkably optimistic about the system’s sustainability: Ole Miss football’s Lane Kiffin.

In addition to his active Twitter fingers, Kiffin has been busy on the recruiting trail this offseason. His proactive approach to transfer portal recruiting netted Ole Miss 16 transfers this spring– including former 5-star RB Zach Evans and QB Jaxson Dart – earning Kiffin the nickname of “Portal King” and the Rebels a No. 2 spot on 247 Sports’ transfer team rankings. He’s managed this without an NIL budget rivaling in-conference foes Alabama and Texas A&M, and he seems to embrace the NIL paradigm more than his contemporaries at those schools. In a recent interview with Ross Dellinger of Sports Illustrated, Kiffin stated he is on board with treating college athletes, and the NIL deals they receive, like the pros. He called for a cap on NIL deals that parallel a professional team’s salary cap while providing the hypothetical of Bryce Young at Alabama to illustrate the leverage a student-athlete can (and should) exploit:

“Why did Bryce Young not go into the portal? If you are advising Bryce Young, why do you not go into the portal and walk into Nick Saban’s office and say, ‘Hey, I want to be here, but I’ve got to protect myself so I’m going to go into the portal. And I want to come back as long as it’s matched with what I get out there.’ The kid would make 10 times what he would have made. How’s that not going to happen all the time? It should. It will.”

Kiffin’s advocacy opens the door for even more student-athlete leverage while still potentially limiting “big-market” schools like Alabama or USC from poaching talents. The cap might seem like a good idea, but the NCAA is hesitant to place any sort of cap on athlete compensation for fear of further Alston-Esque legal trouble. Sure, conferences may place these caps on member institutions, but which conference would willingly take that step if it meant a recruiting disadvantage against other conferences without such restrictions? Should we follow the route of SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and PAC-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff and lobby for the Federal Government to step in and impose such a cap?

Perhaps, given these developments are still in their infancy (it hasn’t even been a full calendar year of NIL yet), we need to hold our horses before placing major rules or regulations in place. The “wait-and-see” approach might not seem attractive right now, but consider what might occur in the coming years. Yes, at the moment we see absurd NIL deals luring recruits to a particular school. However, what happens when those athletes don’t live up to their hype or end up as busts altogether? Rich donors don’t end up rich by accident (most of the time). They accumulate wealth via smart investments, and if they observe that luring recruits with lucrative deals does not translate to production on the field or court, they will be hesitant to offer such deals in the future. If we find after the next season or two that for every Bryce Young, there are dozens of multi-million-dollar recipients who don’t pan out, we might find our worries of buying recruits largely dissipate. We could do so without limiting the market power afforded to student-athletes.

I could be wrong, and things could theoretically get worse in the years to come. In that case, explore regulation to correct the market by all means. However, we owe it to the game and all who participate in it to see how these developments play out before imposing the heavy hand of government regulation, which could cause more harm than good. We’ve waited this long for change, so what’s a couple more years?

Hunter can be found on Twitter @BigHseidler

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