The problem with NIL (paying college athletes for use of their name, image, and likeness) is that nobody feels comfortable speaking out against it. Seriously, who in their right mind begrudges student-athletes for seeking fair and legal compensation from the massive money-making machine that is the NCAA?
This is America, after all—the land of opportunity, free enterprise, and capitalism. If Will Levis and Oscar Tshiebwe can pull in a million bucks in endorsements alone while throwing touchdowns and grabbing rebounds, then more power to them.
As with every opportunity in life, however, there are pluses and minuses. There is no free lunch. Sure, Will and Oscar can rake in the cash, but if they become fat and happy during their college careers, is that necessarily good for the game?
I know a lot of people who think these current developments are horrible for the game. Sadly, they can’t really speak out coherently against NIL without sounding like old men shouting “get off my lawn” at the top of their lungs. Voicing any opposition to NIL in the current sports landscape makes you look jealous, self-absorbed, petty, and dated.
That is, until you hear someone like Keenan Burton expressing his views. Burton played wide receiver for the University of Kentucky from 2004 through 2007. By the time he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams of the NFL, the Louisville native ranked fourth in school history in receptions, second in receiving yards, and second in touchdowns. Trust me, the guy has credibility.
So, when Burton made an appearance on Alan Cutler’s new show (on WLXG ESPN Sports Radio 1300 and 92.5), he parlayed his personal thoughts into what Cutler termed as “radio gold”—the best NIL take he’s heard thus far.
“What I think is going on is that you have these kids who are not committed to a brand,” Burton explained. “They’re not committed to a school. They’re committed to themselves. Once that school doesn’t tell them what they think they are worth, then they’re not going to go there.”
Burton admits that he would have made a whole lot of money if NIL existed back in his day. But that’s not what drove him. In fact, the concept of NIL would have worked counter to everything he stood for. As a college athlete, Burton knew he needed to stay hungry and properly focused.
“What’s happened with the game right now—especially for a lot of kids—is that they’re totally focused on ‘what can be given to me’ as opposed to ‘what can I earn.’ And I think that’s an issue…It sucks, but it’s just that these kids are not motivated when it comes to the grind.”
That sounds like the age-old issue of ENTITLEMENT creeping into the conversation. Burton lamented that gone are the days when athletes would commit to the brand because they wanted to be at Kentucky to play ball.
“For a kid like me, who didn’t have any offers, but Kentucky came and it meant something to me to put the blue and white on—to put Kentucky on my chest. And I don’t see that in any of these kids. Not to say that they won’t play for the greater good of the university. But if they have to choose between themselves and the school, they’re always going to choose themselves. I could have done that. I could have chosen myself, but I didn’t. I chose the school. It may have hurt my future, but I don’t regret the decision that I made.”
There you have it. It’s not so much the idea that money is changing hands, but that the character, makeup, and fortitude within young people is changing for the worse right before our eyes. That’s the huge downside and worrisome aspect to all this NIL talk.
So, what can be done about it?
Unfortunately, the horse is out of the barn. We’re truly dealing with the Wild Wild West, and Kentucky has been painfully slow in getting in on the NIL action. According to Burton, they’re well behind the eight ball in the nuclear arms race to build up the necessary NIL money to stay competitive.
Kentucky has no football tradition. What’s stopping any school from approaching a Barion Brown or Dane Key and telling them they’re losing their quarterback next year and they have no backup to get them the ball? It’s only a matter of time before they transfer to another school which can offer them a boatload of NIL money.
“The days of guys that really care about the sport—that care about the brand, that care about whether or not they were a part of something special, that’s not already built—those days are over. It’s over. It’s what can you pay me.”
Strong words indeed, but Burton wasn’t finished piling on. He went on to imply that Kentucky’s misfortunes on the gridiron this year may be directly related to the NIL mindset. Remember early on when people scoffed at the notion of jealousy over other teammates’ NIL deals creating all this locker room dissension? No one’s laughing now as human nature rears its ugly head.
“I’m just looking at me, Stevie [Johnson], Andre’ [Woodson], Jacob [Tamme], Wesley [Woodyard], and some other guys making a quarter of a million to a million dollars a year. And I’m listening to an assistant coach who’s making two hundred and fifty thousand? And I’m supposed to listen to you? So, it goes past the game. It goes back to respect. It goes back to am I coachable? Am I teachable? Am I somebody who can be trained, developed? Because I’m not listening to you because I make more money than you make in a year. And I play for you. So, why would I listen to you?”
“I’m sure they’re dealing with that right now with Will Levis. I don’t know how much money he makes. I don’t know what he’s getting in endorsements right now with NIL and all that stuff. But I’m sure there are some guys in that locker room who are like, ‘Nah, nah, nah, no, uh-uh.’ And I hate it because [Levis] seems like such a good kid. It’s no fault of his.”
Burton explained, however, that if Andre’ Woodson made a million bucks while he, Johnson, Tamme, and Dicky Lyons Jr. split a million, there’d be hell to pay in the locker room.
“We’re catching all his passes,” Burton said. “You don’t want to think like that. Obviously when it comes to the grind, that’s what I care about the most. The money would be what it is. But when you’ve introduced it, you can’t unlearn it.”
Cutler ended the segment by asking what Burton would do if he were the commissioner of college football.
“I’d resign,” Burton answered.
Smart man. At the beginning of the process, everybody was clamoring for NIL. Now, people aren’t so sure. Be careful what you ask for. The sport we all love may be imploding—with Kentucky at the bottom of the ash heap.
Check out the entire interview here. The NIL talk begins around the 43:30 mark of the 11/18/2022 episode: The Alan Cutler Show | WLXG – Lexington, KY
Interestingly, here was my initial take on NIL: https://huangswhinings.com/2021/07/11/name-image-and-likene/
Dr. John Huang is a UK columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of JustTheCats.com. He also covers the NFL and MLB for Sports View America. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. If you enjoy his writing, be sure to check out his new book, KENTUCKY PASSION. https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669