Student. Athlete. Mogul?
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One day last October, Bubba Cunningham, the athletic director at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, made the short walk from his office to the Dean E. Smith Center, where the men’s basketball team was holding a noon practice, and took a seat at one end of the stands. He wanted to see how the Tar Heels were coming together for the upcoming season, though he already had an idea: The Associated Press ranked them first in the nation in its preseason poll. Cunningham watched the starters run plays against imaginary defenses. Most of those plays ended with a guard, either Caleb Love or R.J. Davis, making a bounce pass to Armando Bacot, who laid the ball into the basket.
As a junior last season, Bacot, a 6-foot-11 center, led the Tar Heels and their rookie head coach, Hubert Davis, through March Madness and into the national championship game. In all six of his tournament games, he scored at least 10 points and tallied at least 10 rebounds, an unprecedented run. Bacot was projected to be chosen in the N.B.A. draft that June. After any other such season, he almost surely would have left school to start being paid to play basketball. But last season was different. For the first time in modern history, a college athlete didn’t need to go to a professional league to do that.
For more than a century, or as long as the N.C.A.A. has presided over college sports, athletes had no legal way to earn anything more tangible from their achievements than plaques and trophies. The rules were as clear as they were strict: Players couldn’t receive any benefits linked to their participation in a sport. Over the years, football and men’s basketball have come to generate billions of dollars for television networks, corporate sponsors and universities. Seven-figure salaries for coaches have become common. The players, however, could get nothing beyond a free — often perfunctory — education.
That changed on July 1, 2021. Following a Supreme Court decision against the N.C.A.A., the organization ended nearly all its restrictions on what athletes could earn from the use of their names, images and likenesses, an amorphous category that has become known as NIL. Overnight, those athletes could make deals with companies and endorse their products. They could even accept money from boosters — usually longtime donors, or local businessmen with ties to a university — in transactions that previously would have led to severe sanctions against their teams. Around the country, administrators were astonished by the abrupt reversal. “It’s not a hole in the dike,” is how Vince Ille, a senior associate athletic director under Cunningham, describes the N.C.A.A.’s change of course. “It’s the obliteration of the entire dam.”
U.N.C.’s athletic director, Bubba Cunningham.Credit…Shawn Hubbard for The New York Times
Since Bacot could make money and still remain a student, he chose to return to Chapel Hill for another season. Soon after, the first of several lucrative deals with companies was announced. “Usually, at the end of a Final Four run, your best players leave,” Cunningham told me. He pointed out four of the Tar Heel players on the practice court — Bacot, Love, R.J. Davis and Leaky Black, a long-limbed defensive specialist. All of them started on last year’s team, and all of them returned for another year. “In each case,” Cunningham said, “NIL was at least partially the reason.”
By last fall, in an act symbolic of the newly liberated college athlete, Bacot was openly driving an $80,000 Audi. His portfolio of deals totaled well over $500,000, according to his mother, Christie Lomax, who acts as his manager. (Because college athletes aren’t required to reveal what they earn, dollar amounts are difficult to verify.) In November, on a day that the Tar Heels didn’t hold practice, Bacot participated in photo shoots for three different companies: BOA Nutrition, MoneyLion and Nerf. Love, too, has been thriving: His projected annual income approaches $400,000, as compiled by On3, a recruiting website. “They’re setting themselves up for life after basketball,” Cunningham said.
On the court below him, the well-heeled Heels looked sloppy. Bacot strained to catch a pass that trickled off his hands and landed out of bounds. Soon after, Hubert Davis interrupted practice and gathered his players around him, then admonished them for not knowing where they were supposed to stand during each play. Bacot nodded vigorously. He threw his arms into the air and made two fists, as if to say to his teammates, “Enough of this — let’s get it right.”
Bacot, who has made the dean’s list at North Carolina, is taking business classes. His ability to work toward a degree while making money from basketball seems like a successful outcome for everyone concerned. But it comes with unexpected consequences. Some of his deals, like those of his teammates, are with advertisers and boosters who previously supported North Carolina athletics in the only way that was permitted: by giving money to the athletic department. Those payments helped subsidize other teams on campus that don’t generate enough revenue to cover their costs, which is just about all of them. Now Cunningham doesn’t have that money to spend — or as much of it, anyway. “It’s not a zero-sum game,” he says; the new conditions do allow some new and additional money to find its way into college sports. “But there is a finite amount of money out there.”
Watching practice was supposed to be an enjoyable lunchtime diversion for Cunningham. But the more we talked about the ramifications of the Supreme Court decision, the grimmer his expression became. North Carolina has an outsize prominence in college athletics, because of both its men’s basketball success (a record 21 trips to the Final Four) and its pre-eminence in less visible sports. It has won 10 N.C.A.A. titles in field hockey, for example, and an astonishing 21 in women’s soccer. Yet, even before the 2021 decision, it was struggling to budget as much for the salaries of its coaching staffs and the renovation of its facilities as universities in the Southeastern Conference and the Big Ten, which generate far more income from their television contracts.
Now that advertisers and donors can choose to pay athletes directly, that struggle is likely to be exacerbated. Bacot’s income is nearly double the entire budget of, say, North Carolina’s swim teams. And while it was easy to imagine a booster pointing toward Bacot during a game and boasting that his donations helped keep him at North Carolina, it was harder to conjure the image of someone at Bowman Gray Memorial Pool telling a friend: “That chlorine in the water? That’s from me.”
Cunningham oversees 28 varsity sports. If money continues to be siphoned away from the athletic department, he is skeptical that all the teams can survive, at least at the Division I level. This might be the hidden cost of allowing college players to earn what the market will give them, and a price he is reluctant to pay. “Because we value all the sports,” he says. “And this is not going backward.”
The upheaval that gave college athletes the right to earn money from their sports began with a reasonable grievance. In 2014, Ed O’Bannon, a former power forward on the U.C.L.A. basketball team, sued the N.C.A.A. and E.A. Sports because he felt entitled to income from a video game that included his likeness. His primary claim was that the N.C.A.A. rules prohibiting student-athlete compensation were a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The U.S. district judge who heard the case agreed with O’Bannon. In 2019, the same judge issued a similar ruling in a separate lawsuit, known as the Alston case. Those decisions struck a chord with many sports fans, who identified with O’Bannon’s position. When California’s Legislature passed a law that year allowing college athletes to hire agents and negotiate business deals, Gavin Newsom, the state’s governor, signed it on HBO with LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers sitting beside him.
By then, the N.C.A.A. understood that change was inevitable. That fall, it surveyed its members about whether income should be shared by all players or retained by those who made individual deals. When North Carolina’s football team met to discuss the issue, a quarterback named Sam Howell, then a freshman, made the case that letting players profit from deals they negotiated would unfairly favor those, like himself, who played marquee positions. Everyone pretty much agreed. “I knew NIL was coming,” Cunningham says now, “but I didn’t think it would happen the way that it did. I thought we’d start with group licensing — bring back the video game, jersey sales, things that you could somewhat control.” He figured the schools would make the deals, collect the money, then spread it out among their athletes.
In the months that followed, the N.C.A.A. created a template for distributing money through the schools. But in the wake of the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion upholding the lower court’s decision in the Alston case, the organization decided that any limitations on college athletes’ potential earnings could prompt a lawsuit — and that it probably would lose in court. In the end, the N.C.A.A. (which declined to comment for this article) felt comfortable imposing only a few rules on its member institutions regarding the deals that athletes could make. The most basic rule is that for an athlete to earn money, something of ostensible value must be provided in return. You can’t just give $10,000 to Leaky Black; he would at least have to pose for a selfie with you, or sign an autograph, or maybe agree to call your sister on her birthday. Income cannot directly compensate performance — a specific sum per touchdown pass, for example. Schools can’t pay their players, though some coaches have proposed that college athletes be treated as salaried employees. Also, the promise of deals can’t be used to recruit high schoolers, or to entice current students to transfer through a web portal that was created in 2018 to make player movement more transparent. The rule against recruiting, which is all but unenforceable, is widely believed to be broken by one school or another pretty much every day. The other rules are flimsy enough to be easily circumvented.
The opportunity to earn money while playing college sports is available to all athletes, from football’s Heisman Trophy winner to small-college wrestlers. But of the approximately 520,000 students currently competing in intercollegiate athletics, maybe 519,000 are making nothing at all. A vast majority of deals reward the top players on the nationally competitive teams in two sports: football and men’s basketball. Some of the deals are as lucrative as those that established professionals earn. According to On3, this academic year the Alabama quarterback Bryce Young will earn a total of at least $3.2 million from Nissan, BMW of Tuscaloosa, the mobile-payment service Cash App and other companies. The largest payouts come from boosters, and many of the richest deals involve recruits. The collegiate future of Jaden Rashada, a quarterback from Pittsburg, Calif., is said to have come down to substantial payments: He initially committed to the University of Miami after a single booster, John Ruiz, offered a $9.5 million payment. Then, one of the more than 200 organizations, known as collectives, that were established to pool booster donations and distribute them to players promised him a deal worth more than $13 million. The organization was the Gator Collective, which supports the University of Florida. Rashada rescinded his commitment to Miami and enrolled there instead. He announced that decision in a 43-second video that began with him stepping out of a blue Lamborghini. That offer fell apart last month, The Athletic reports, because Gator Collective didn’t have enough money to fulfill it. Where Rashada will play next season remains uncertain, but it will be somewhere, and he is almost certain to make several million dollars.
Many of the companies that are doing business directly with players were already spending millions of dollars on college sports. Soon after the restrictions ended, Howell, the same Tar Heel who had weighed in against players benefiting from their own deals, signed with Bojangles, a regional restaurant chain. Howell, who now plays in the N.F.L. for the Washington Commanders, had emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in his class. The relationship with Bojangles was a natural, he said. He grew up near the company’s Charlotte headquarters and had been eating its chicken all his life.
Jackie Woodward, Bojangles’s head of marketing, told me that the money paid to Howell was pulled from the same budget she had been using to buy sponsorships with various schools, including North Carolina. Since Bojangles can now choose individual athletes to represent its brand, I wondered if those deals would force the company to reconsider the way it uses school sponsorships. Woodward acknowledged the possibility. “The space is evolving,” she said.
Nearly all of North Carolina’s football players were on campus when Howell signed with Bojangles. The prevailing response was not jealousy but a sense of what now might be possible. “For me, it was motivation,” says Josh Downs, who was North Carolina’s best wide receiver last season. “It’s been a lot of years that there’s been a discussion of how colleges should pay their athletes. Now here was an opportunity to have the fruits of my labor pay off.” As of late 2022, Downs had deals with NOBULL sportswear and Outback Steakhouse, among others.
The compensation of college players is a work in progress, an unregulated economic frontier. Every weekday, first thing in the morning, a group of administrators within North Carolina’s athletic department gathers to try to make sense of the latest developments. One morning in August, they discussed the ramifications of an announcement that the University of South Carolina had hired a sports-management firm to help advise its athletes. Then Marielle vanGelder, a senior associate athletic director who handles compliance for the department, read through the latest deals that had been entered — voluntarily, because the university can’t require disclosure — into its database.
North Carolina permits its athletes to affiliate themselves with almost every conceivable company; only cannabis products, alcohol, casinos and adult entertainment are prohibited. Nike is a North Carolina sponsor, so Tar Heel athletes are expected to wear its gear when they represent the university. “But they go home on the weekend,” vanGelder says, “and we’re not going to stop them from doing a deal with Adidas.” Two deals had been added since the previous morning. VanGelder verified that neither was in a prohibited category. Then she announced them to the group. One was straightforward, a promotional arrangement with a company that had attended a social event the department arranged at which local businesses could pitch the school’s athletes. “The other one,” she said, “is an athlete partnering with a dealership for the use of a vehicle.”
That generated a hum of interest. As far as anyone around the table knew, it was the first time a Tar Heel athlete had legally received a car. VanGelder cautioned that she wasn’t allowed to reveal any details, such as the make of car or what sport the athlete played. But Bacot’s Carolina-blue S.U.V. was already the talk of campus.
Last summer, Erin Matson, a North Carolina field hockey player, gave me a short tour through downtown Chapel Hill. We were on Franklin Street, which is a quintessential main drag of an American college town. The shops and restaurants we passed cater mostly to students and the families who come to visit them, and to the hordes drawn to campus for football and basketball games.
Matson, who graduated in December as perhaps the best player in the history of college field hockey, wanted me to see a few businesses in particular. A clothing store was selling T-shirts that had a logo Matson designed on the front and her name on the back. A restaurant on the next block gave her a free grain bowl or salad every day in return for mentions on her social media accounts. (“Thirty meals a month,” she said, her eyebrows raised, “which is funny because they’re closed on Sundays. So it’s actually more than one a day.”) And then, down the hill toward Carrboro, she pointed out a tire shop that had paid her to do a radio advertisement.
In November, the Tar Heels defeated Northwestern University to win their fourth national field hockey title in the past five years. Not coincidentally, those five years were when Matson attended the school. A three-time national Player of the Year, she’s far more accomplished than Bacot in the context of their respective sports. Following the Northwestern game, a tweet from a former manager of a Chapel Hill radio station showed Matson chiseled into a Tar Heel version of Mount Rushmore, along with Dean Smith, the former basketball coach; the soccer player Mia Hamm; and Michael Jordan. She has taken advantage of her status by negotiating deals around the area. Taken together, though, they don’t earn her even as much as many Division I running backs.
A vast majority of deals done by athletes around the country look more like Matson’s than they do like Bacot’s or Young’s. They involve a player’s being compensated for lending his or her name to a summer camp, perhaps, or receiving free clothing in return for posting about it on Instagram. Matson drove me from the field hockey clubhouse to Franklin Street not in a head-turning Audi, but in the Jeep that her parents gave her when she qualified for her driver’s license back in Chadds Ford, Penn., six years ago. At the time of her graduation from North Carolina, she had earned about $50,000 over two seasons. The only national deals she had were endorsements targeted toward other field hockey players.
An elite international player, she had known for years that she would get equipment from sponsors as soon as she left college. Overseas companies pestered her on social media, asking her to endorse their products. “And I was like, ‘I can’t until I graduate,’” she said. Those restrictions vanished after the Supreme Court decision. Within days, Matson signed with Longstreth, a sporting-goods store outside Philadelphia that imports from Germany the TK sticks that she favors. As the face of field hockey in the United States, she knew that she could use NIL to sell her sport. “I was very cognizant of not doing it just to make money,” she says, “but to serve a purpose.”
Besides, marketing herself was fun. An advertising and public relations major, she liked applying three years of classes to the real world. She needed a brand, so she invented One, named after her uniform number. During the year that followed, she pursued some deals and sifted through others. “It was wild,” she says. “I learned all about W-9s and filing this and filing that.” This past spring, she started writing a blog for her personal website. Before long, a local radio station reached out and suggested she do it for them. She’d reach a far bigger audience that way, they explained. And they would pay her for the content.
To Matson, the possibilities are limited only by the time she has to devote to them. “Just a short time before, it was, ‘I can’t accept this from you because it’s a benefit, and I can’t even have this conversation — bye!’” she says. “And now it’s: ‘What do you want to do? Let’s do everything!’” When she had to fill out the standard student-athlete form regarding summer employment, she realized that its boilerplate questions had been overtaken by events. “I didn’t even know how to answer them,” she says. “Employed? I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m employed 24 hours of every day.’”
Yet, despite its success, Matson’s Tar Heel field hockey team can’t make enough money on its own to cover its costs: the scholarships, travel expenses, equipment and staff salaries, without which a varsity team can’t operate. Instead, it relies on gifts from donors, plus a slice of the sponsorship and ticket income generated by the school’s football and men’s basketball teams. With all that, it still ran $166,000 over budget during the 2021 season, according to Karen Shelton, the team’s head coach. Shelton made up some of the difference with her own fund-raising. “So we’re already doing that,” she says. “At what point does the money run out?”
Since arriving at North Carolina in 1981, Shelton has rooted hard for the university’s football and men’s basketball teams — because they wear the same sky blue uniforms, but also because their success would help generate revenue for the entire department. Now, though, she worries that donations that previously helped fund the field hockey team will end up going to the collectives. “If donors want to give their money to that big star quarterback, they’re going to,” she told me with a shrug.
Shelton is proud of Matson when she sees her name or photo around Chapel Hill. But she’s keenly aware that the same ruling that allows Matson to capitalize on her field hockey success may force the athletic department’s hand. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be about the money, and how to choose where to spend it,” she says. “Push comes to shove, who’s going to lose out?”
In December, after the team won the national championship for the 10th time during her tenure, Shelton announced her impending retirement. She had planned it months before, and it had no connection to the economic issues her program was facing. Still, when we spoke, she expressed relief that she would be leaving before North Carolina’s field hockey program might lose the resources necessary to be nationally competitive. “I’m optimistic about most things,” she told me. “I’m not optimistic about this.”
Even more than the endorsement deals, collectives have altered the landscape of college sports. Until the N.C.A.A. abolished the prohibition on paying players, most boosters gave their money to their favorite school’s athletic department. Those contributions helped pay coaches’ salaries, fund recruiting trips, charter team planes, upgrade facilities — whatever the department needed. Now some of those checks go to collectives. Like Political Action Committees and the campaigns they help fund, the collectives must have no official affiliation with athletic departments. Rather, they distribute money as they choose. What they actually do is give it directly to athletes.
In December 2021, for instance, a collective at the University of Texas announced that it would guarantee deals worth at least $50,000 annually to each of the offensive linemen who were currently on scholarship with the program. It was seen as a pre-emptive strike against other programs trying to get Longhorns to transfer, but the subtext was that high school linemen considering Texas could expect the same munificence. That set a rough value for what a lineman could expect to earn. Not surprisingly, the value of a quarterback is much higher.
The collectives are a hack in the system — entities that can legally pay players for the use of their names, images or likenesses, even though making those payments is their sole reason for existing. In fact, the payments they make aren’t much different from the under-the-table benefits that were sometimes distributed to players in violation of the old regulations. It can happen out in the open now, so long as the players who receive it do something in return — charity work, in many cases, or an appearance on behalf of the collective itself.
In the summer of 2021, Dwight Stone, a Greensboro businessman and a frequent contributor to North Carolina athletics, helped found a collective, Heels4Life, to subsidize the school’s football players. Stone is a tennis enthusiast; his son and daughter played at Chapel Hill. But as a former chairman of North Carolina’s board, he understood that the financial health of a major state university was often determined, in part, by its football success. A competitive team could inspire wealthy alumni to give — to athletics, but also to the school’s general fund, and to capital campaigns that help build dorms and renovate classrooms. In 135 seasons playing football, North Carolina has never won a national title. Since 1953, when the A.C.C. was founded with North Carolina as a charter member, it has won just five conference championships. A robust collective, Stone realized, might be an opportunity to alter the Tar Heels’ standing in the sport.
“When NIL was put into motion, there was good intent,” Stone says. “What it has turned into is basically a pay-to-play, to some degree, and a recruiting mechanism for those who are smart enough and wealthy enough to put together a collective for their schools.” Mack Brown, the North Carolina football coach, has been critical of the impact that barely regulated payment to players has had on recruiting. But his personal view on the topic, like that of every other coach, is irrelevant. “To have a competitive team on the field to support Mack and his coaches, we need NIL,” says Graham Boone, the Heels4Life executive director. “That’s just a reality.” Before the 2022 season, Brown stressed to the newly hired Boone that Heels4Life needed to do everything it could to get deals for his players, right up to the edge of the rules. “If the speed limit is 45,” Brown told him, “we’d better be going 45.”
Brown, now 71, coached at North Carolina from 1988 to 1997. Then he went to Texas, won a national championship and eventually retired. He was working as a TV commentator in 2018 when Cunningham invited him to return to Chapel Hill. One Monday evening in August, I went to a local sports bar to watch him do his weekly radio show. The conversation he had with Jones Angell, the host of the show, could have come straight out of his first tenure at North Carolina, or any coaches’ show over the past three decades. Brown talked in his Tennessee drawl about establishing the running game, and how he hoped that some of his banged-up defensive players would be back by the weekend.
But at the table where I was sitting with fund-raisers and athletic-department officials, the chatter was unique to 2022. Not long before, I learned, a collective at the University of Oklahoma paid the school to become a sponsor, in effect buying the same status that Bojangles had at schools around the southeast. That meant it could show players in uniforms on its website and market itself as an officially sanctioned partner, among other benefits. Whether buying those rights was a worthwhile way for the collectives to spend boosters’ money, nobody at the table seemed to know. Later, I realized that, for the university, selling a sponsorship to Heels4Life would be just as remunerative for North Carolina athletics as selling it to any other company.
When I mentioned NIL to Brown after the show, he looked rueful. “I’m trying to adapt,” he said. Only a few years ago, even the suggestion that universities should pay their players might have caused him to end a conversation. But sitting with me in his campus office several weeks later, he raised that possibility as a way for athletic departments to regain some control over the process. “At least we’d have guidelines,” he said. One of those guidelines might be a binding contract that athletes would sign with a school. If they decided to leave before the end of their eligibility, whether to become a professional or move to another program, they would be forced to return some percentage of the money they’d been paid.
Brown hoped that would prevent other programs from poaching his players. Last summer, he reported, several schools came after Downs, his prized pass-catcher. “They do it through a third party,” he said. “They say, ‘Our school needs a receiver and I know they just paid another kid $250,000, and they’d love to have you.’” Downs didn’t name the schools. “And I didn’t expect him to,” Brown said. When I spoke to Downs, he said that the ability to do deals is helping to determine the composition of college rosters. “Some kids make their decisions based on what schools will take care of them with NIL,” he said. “That does weigh for some people. The big-name guys who every college wants, they’ve got leeway. They can take advantage of it.”
North Carolina’s football program earned $44.4 million in 2021. That seems like plenty, but at least a dozen college football teams generated more than $100 million in 2019, the last year that Forbes magazine made an assessment. Seven of those teams competed in the Southeastern Conference, including Texas A&M, which made $147 million. The biggest disparity is TV revenue, according to reports: When the new television contract with ESPN begins after next season, the S.E.C. will receive $300 million annually. The Big Ten’s new deal with several networks that starts this July is even more lucrative: more than $7 billion over seven years. By comparison, the contract that the A.C.C. signed with ESPN’s parent company Disney in 2016 — and that runs through 2036 — gives the conference $240 million annually. S.E.C. members typically also have fewer programs to support. Alabama competes in 15 sports. Vanderbilt offers just six men’s sports at the varsity level.
With less television revenue than schools in other prominent conferences and 28 varsity teams, North Carolina is at the vanguard of a pending disaster, like one of those Indian Ocean atolls that is slowly being subsumed by rising water. Schools like Vanderbilt stand on higher ground. But it seems likely that the tides will reach them soon enough.
Ever since Harvard and Yale competed in the first intercollegiate sports competition in 1852, a rowing race on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, elite athletics and America’s institutions of higher learning have been coupled. The relationship is far from intuitive; in the years since, no other nation has linked the two on nearly as grand a scale. But it has endured, even as sports have grown to occupy an increasingly outsize role on most campuses. Many teams play in grandiose facilities. They charter jets and fly coast to coast like professionals. At some universities, a head coach earns more than the president. (The University of Alabama’s Nick Saban, whose annual salary averages out to $11 million, is America’s highest-paid public employee.)
If educators seem to embrace such a situation, it is because the endless stream of televised games markets their schools far more efficiently than every academic discipline combined. A college football or basketball game, especially one during a postseason tournament, can attract an audience of millions, and one with a demographic that many companies want to reach. That leads networks to pay huge sums for the right to televise them.
Nobody is suggesting that companies will stop buying commercials during college games. But the possibility of paying players directly creates alternative options. “NIL does open up the pool of what’s possible, and how we might leverage celebrity content,” says Allyson Witherspoon, a vice president and chief marketing officer at Nissan, which advertises heavily during sports events and has sponsorship agreements with 45 schools. Those options might include coordinated social media campaigns built around individual players, or live events outside the jurisdiction of a school’s athletic department. The funds for any of that, Witherspoon acknowledged, would be drawn from her existing budget. “There are going to be some really hard decisions going forward,” she said.
Last summer, a North Carolina collective staged a scrimmage involving the entire men’s basketball team. The goal was to raise funds for players, who agreed to sign some autographs after the game in return. The lead sponsor was United Healthcare, and that created a problem. BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina, one of its competitors, has for years paid the university for the right to display its logo inside the Smith Center and brand itself the Tar Heels’ official health care provider. This scrimmage wasn’t a sanctioned event, so the teams couldn’t wear uniforms with the name of the school. Still, a health insurance company was benefiting from an association with Tar Heel basketball — and it wasn’t the one that had a contract with the athletic department. The obvious question then becomes, if your standing as an official partner doesn’t prevent competitors from getting similar visibility, what’s the incentive to keep paying for it?
The answer to that question could lead athletic departments to alter their business plans. Or a mandate might come from the outside, from congressional legislation or another judicial ruling. What seems certain to everyone involved with college sports is that more changes are coming. Programs that can’t pay for themselves could soon look a lot more like something those rowers on Lake Winnipesaukee would recognize. Even today, Harvard’s and Yale’s football and basketball players attend college without the help of athletic scholarships. Their conference, the Ivy League, doesn’t allow them. It isn’t a coincidence that, spared the expense of providing athletes with free rooms, meals and tuition, Harvard fields 42 varsity teams. “The Ivy League has it right,” Cunningham says.
In 2020, Cunningham traveled to Washington to explain to some members of Congress what might be coming. He showed them a diagram of a pyramid that had 45 million youth-sports participants at the base, and 5,780 professional athletes across the various leagues at the peak. On the second level, just below the professionals, were the Division I student athletes — 184,486 of them at the time. He explained that a tiny subset of those athletes generated nearly all the income that supported the entire structure. But he cautioned them about the danger of letting those few athletes use their prominence to earn whatever they could. “If you let the market drive college athletics,” he told them, “participation opportunities will diminish. We will end up pushing more and more money to fewer and fewer people.” He takes no solace in the fact that, outside the Ivy League and the small colleges, this is exactly what is happening.
Soon after Brown and I talked in his office, North Carolina’s football team beat Wake Forest to improve its record to 9-1. At the time, the Tar Heels were ranked 13th in the country, but they didn’t win again. They lost two games to end their regular season, and then the A.C.C.’s championship game. In the postseason Holiday Bowl in San Diego, they held a six-point lead in the final minute. Oregon completed a late touchdown pass, converted the extra point to go ahead, 28-27, and North Carolina lost again.
That bowl game was played under a shadow. Drake Maye, North Carolina’s star quarterback, had been promised $5 million to transfer by two schools, according to comments made by Pat Narduzzi, the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh, on a radio show. “It happens,” Brown told me earlier about programs trying to steal players from one another. “And it’s real. And it’s bad.”
Before the game, Maye issued a carefully worded denial to ESPN that he had been offered anything. “Pitt’s coach ended up putting that out there,” Maye said. “I don’t know what that was about.” If the speculation had unsettled him, it hadn’t affected his play. But from the perspective of someone who had much to gain from the unfettered capitalism that players now enjoy, he warned about the effect it was having on the sport. “I think college football is going to turn into a mess,” he said. “They’re going to have to do something.”
Within a couple of weeks after the start of the season, North Carolina’s men’s basketball team lost four games in a row and fell out of the national rankings. When they took the floor to play Wake Forest at the Smith Center on Jan. 4, the Tar Heels sat at seventh in the A.C.C. During that game they showed flashes of brilliance. One sequence, which started with a Bacot rebound and ended with a resounding dunk, might have been the preseason practice when the team was running plays against imaginary opposition. The teams traded the lead until deep into the second half. Then North Carolina’s superior talent helped it pull away and win, 88-79. The four returning starters — Bacot, R.J. Davis, Black and Love — contributed 73 of the 88 points.
In December, Cunningham released an open letter to North Carolina’s fans and supporters. (The letter was also signed by the executive director of the Rams Club, which has been the official fund-raising arm for the university since 1938, and appeared on its website.) He wanted to clarify his department’s position. “We support our student-athletes’ ability to profit from their NIL, we thank those who have already contributed to their efforts to date and we encourage you to assist the collectives and marketplaces that empower their success,” it read. Cunningham never wanted to be in this position, but this was where college sports had arrived, and he was charged with keeping North Carolina’s teams competitive. If that took urging donors to help Tar Heel players get bigger deals, then that’s what he needed to do.
When we spoke after the Wake Forest game, he seemed unsettled. Though he’d reached out to colleagues around the country to try to figure out a more equitable way to remunerate players, they hadn’t reached consensus. With all their vicissitudes, North Carolina’s football and men’s basketball programs were winning, which meant that its donors would most likely continue to write checks. But if a hefty chunk of their money went directly to players, as his own letter was soliciting, would enough remain for his department to fund more than two dozen other teams and remain solvent?
“We have professional sports, and we know what that economic model looks like,” Cunningham said. “And we have college sports, and the model has always been different.” As more and more money worked its way to the players at the top of the pyramid, he feared that it soon would be impossible to tell them apart.
Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to the magazine who lives in Colorado. His last article examined the rise of popularity of Formula 1 racing in the United States. Schoenfeld’s latest book, “Game of Edges: The Analytics Revolution and the Future of Professional Sports,” will be published in June by W.W. Norton. Shawn Hubbard is a commercial and documentary photographer based in Baltimore whose work is primarily centered on athletes and the emotions that arise out of competition.