KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Four-hundred thousand dollars’ worth of elite point guard with a 40-inch vertical leap went up for a dunk Saturday afternoon in Miami‘s Midwest Regional off-day shootaround at the T-Mobile Center. The physical act of Nijel Pack throwing down drew more raves from sideline observers than the fact he is earning $400K per year to do it.
Increasingly — across the tournament and across the nation — that is as it should be. The ability to get such NIL benefits has ushered in an era when such six-figure deals hardly make us blink anymore.
The fifth-seeded Canes are within 40 minutes of their first Final Four Sunday against Texas. But the subtext is rooted in what – at least on the surface – is one of the best teams money can buy.
Pack signed a two-year NIL deal worth $800,000 when he transferred from Kansas State in the offseason. Teammate Isaiah Wong has a deal worth at least $100,000 per year. It is a lot, legal and public. Billionaire Miami booster John Ruiz wanted it that way.
In the 21 months since the NCAA allowed athletes’ access to profit off their birthright name, image and likeness, Ruiz became one of the faces of NIL. Last fall when he not only released the list of Miami athletes he was paying to endorse LifeWallet – Ruiz’ company which recovers improper payments made by Medicare — he also released their salaries.
Ruiz said the maneuver was “totally strategic” to draw attention to his business.
“That’s what marketing is about, right?” Ruiz told CBS Sports. “Whether you like the deal, you don’t like the deal. You hate me, you hate Nijel. You love Nijel. Whatever the circumstances are you’re being talked about.”
“How much would it cost LifeWallet to be in all the articles that he’s been in?,” Ruiz added. “You’re probably looking at $25 million dollars.”
We can quibble about hyperbole, but there is no doubt Pack has been worth it. Miami is in its second consecutive Elite Eight. Pack, a third-year sophomore, is one of the nation’s best point guards pairing with Wong, the ACC Player of the Year.
Pack and Miami arrived at this pinnacle together Friday with the guard pouring in a game-high 26 points to help beat Houston in a Midwest Regional semifinal.
In return for what is typically a series of videos and social media posts promoting LifeWallet from Miami athletes, Ruiz and his alma mater have arrived at their own flashpoint. On Sunday, both the men’s and women’s teams will be playing for a spot in their sports’ Final Four.
“It feels great being part of this, making history,” men’s forward Norchad Ormier said.
However, the off-court subtext cannot be avoided. Beginning in July 2021 the NCAA offered a series of NIL guidelines. Since then, the market has exploded as the athletes, agents, schools and collectives have reshaped college athletics.
Opposing forces have gathered at this point in a parallel history. One, traditionalists who want to reign in NIL benefits. The others, represented forcefully here by Miami this weekend, want the NIL spigot to flow.
“There are a lot of schools that do the same thing we do,” Canes coach Jim Larranaga said. “We just don’t know about it because it’s not public knowledge. Why not? Why are we afraid of sharing that information?
“The second thing is … TV makes money, right? The shoe companies make money. The universities make money … And the coaches make a hell of a living. What’s wrong with that filtering down?”
Larranaga is not the first to point out that everybody is making money off this massive enterprise except the players. We’re way beyond the concept of a free scholarship being enough. There are legal forces in the form of multiple lawsuits against the NCAA that threaten to bring down the collegiate model.
For some, it has reached the point where the NCAA can change on its own or have the structure changed for them.
Pack was reminded of a 2015 Pac-12 study that found its conference athletes spend an average of 50 hours a week on their chosen sport, making it more of a job than a leisure activity the NCAA would have you believe.
“Especially in the offseason, a lot of guys put in a lot of hours,” Pack told CBS Sports. “You’re getting a stipend and a scholarship, which is great, but what money do you have to live on after that? Basketball is basically a job. Guys should be able to [profit] off of that.”
Pack’s father runs a financial consulting firm in his native Indianapolis. It’s safe to assume the dad has helped the son invest well. Pack’s roommate, Omier, works with opendorse, a Lincoln, Nebraska-based company that specializes in organizing NIL deals.
According to the opendorse website Omier is charging $84 to record a personal video. A social media post will run you $368. A personal appearance goes for $875. A response to a “custom request” starts at $300.
NIL is here to stay
This is a peek at the future.
“With the numbers coming out [publicly], I was told, ‘Do you want to play one day in the NBA?’ Pack told CBS Sports. “I said ‘Yeah.’ They said, ‘People are going to know how much money you make in the NBA. They’re going to expect a certain expectation out of you.’
This is like preparation and stepping stones for making it to the next level. It actually helps me grow thicker skin, help my mind grow stronger.”
In the short history of NIL, lockerrooms haven’t fractured over jealousies. Larranaga pointed out that, in the end, teams still have to bond on the court to succeed.
“I’m just going to reiterate that everybody was happy for Nijel,” teammate Jordan Miller said. “There’s no bad blood. The more we got to know Nijel, the more we got to see him as a person and how he is as an individual basketball player. So, at the end of the day, everyone is happy for whoever gets whatever NIL opportunity comes their way.”
The coach was asked how he reacted to his peers and critics saying the NIL landscape has become like the Wild, Wild West with little or no regulation. The coach likes to use what has become the Steph Curry example at Miami. The Golden State Warriors all-world guard does a series of commercials for Subway.
“I don’t think Subway is telling Steve Kerr what to do with his basketball program,” Larranaga said. “I have nobody telling me what to do at our basketball program.
“I’m going to coach my team, my players to the best of my ability. And I hope they can get as many deals as they can because I think eventually, they have to learn how to handle money.”
Penalties for Miami women’s basketball team
Miami has become the epicenter of the NIL debate in another way. Last month, the school became the first to be penalized by the NCAA in an NIL-related issue. Miami women’s basketball was given one-year probation and minor sanctions after the Cavinder twins – Tik Tok superstars Hanna and Haley – met with Ruiz.
Miami self-imposed a three-game suspension at the beginning of the season on women’s coach Katie Meier for what the school said was an inadvertent arrangement for two transfers to meet Ruiz.
The NCAA Committee on Infractions later stated it was “troubled” Ruiz wasn’t disassociated from the program in what was a negotiated resolution to the case. The NCAA has said it will not penalize athletes in NIL cases but will concentrate instead on schools and boosters.
In January the NCAA changed its rules to a more “guilty until proven innocent” stance in investigating NIL cases. In “NIL presumption” cases it can be determined rules have been broken if there is “circumstantial evidence” of a violation. The Miami case began before that rule change.
“I think they [NCAA] completely went out on a stretch to find anything they could,” Ruiz said.
Wong’s NIL agent did protest a year ago when the twins’ deal was announced suggesting his client was underpaid. Ruiz eventually smoothed over the situation.
New NCAA president Charlie Baker has been busy on Capitol Hill since taking the job March 1. He was hired for his ability as a politician (former Massachusetts governor) advocating for Congressional oversight of the NIL space.
In early February, a Florida State donor flew teammates Jordan Travis and Trey Benson to the Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz. That qualified as one of the more notable perks in the NIL era.
The head of FSU’s collective, The Battle’s End, said a donation from the trip came from the donor. Those third-party collectives have drawn scrutiny because of the fine line they sometimes tread. The NCAA is determined to look into boosters who might provide improper benefits.
Meanwhile, there is capitalism. Any attempt by the NCAA to reign in some of those benefits could be met with anti-trust lawsuits.
“I’m a college football man, certainly not something reflective of the political will or capital in Washington, D.C.,” said Ingram Smith, president of The Battle’s End that has signed Travis. “But I don’t see the political appetite to tackle this right now.”
This month alone has produced a series of dueling op-eds. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said in USA Today “college sports will destroy itself if it doesn’t get proactive about reform.”
Murphy, among other legislators, supports players being compensated for their athletic labor. He has introduced legislation to make it easier for players to collectively bargain.
“NIL doesn’t provide fair compensation for the 40-plus hour work weeks athletes in to be the top of their game,” Murphy wrote. “It doesn’t solve the problem at the core of college sports: The athletes generating billions in revenue don’t get anything close to a fair of it.”
Murphy’s op-ed was preceded by a guest editorial this week in the New York Times by Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick and president Fr. John Jenkins. In the piece headlined “College Sports Are a Treasure. Don’t Turn Them Into The Minor Leagues,” the pair advocated for a return to the NCAA’s traditional collegiate (amateur) model.
Swarbrick told CBS Sports eight years ago he envisioned congressional intervention in college athletics and possibly a split into two college governing bodies. One would reflect the traditional NCAA collegiate model. The other would be more of a semi-pro model.
Now, onto Sunday’s showdown and all the NIL implications that will be tipping off with it.
“Everybody has their own opinion about NIL,” Pack said. “I feel like NIL can be a blessing. All the time and effort we put in on the court, traveling, going to school. It’s a blessing for all the work we put in.”