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New NIL Twist: Alumni, Collectives Pledging Cash to College Athletes

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Money for college athletes is being pledged by the millions in a new development six months into the name, image and likeness era, raising concerns about the role of wealthy alumni eager to back their beloved alma maters.

As reported by Associated Press sports writer Jim Vertuno, one group is dangling $50,000 a year for individual offensive linemen at the University of Texas, while another says it already has $10 million promised for Longhorns athletes. At Oregon, billioniare Nike founder Phil Knight is part of group helping Ducks athletes line up deals alongside the apparel companies, energy drink companies, local car dealerships and restaurants already signing athletes to endorsement deals.

That's the new twist — that donors like Knight who want the best players at their alma maters are muscling their way into the NIL picture, making bold promises in a clear bid to attract attention from recruits weighing their options.

More than a dozen "collectives" have sprung up around major college programs such as Ohio State, Penn State, Washington, Tennessee and others to connect athletes with marketing opportunities, Vertuno reported. At Texas, two new initiatives launched with the promise of big money just two weeks before this week's National Signing Day.

"It is the wild, wild West," Todd Berry, executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, told Vertuno. "Did anyone expect anything different?"

Clark Field Collective, which is officially unaffiliated with the University of Texas, claims it already has $10 million pledged to support NIL deals for Longhorns athletes. Days later, a new nonprofit called Horns With Heart said it would pay $50,000 annually to Longhorns offensive linemen for work supporting community charities.

The Clark Field Collective's board of directors includes former NBA star T.J. Ford and former NFL player Kenny Vaccaro, both Texas alumni.

"The University of Texas at Austin maintains the largest, wealthiest alumni donor base in the entire country," Clark Field Collective CEO Nick Shuley said. "It's time a network like this existed to support our college athletes."

Horns With Heart, with several UT alums among its six founding directors, was announced just as Texas coach Steve Sarkisian was publicly pursuing recruits for his offensive line, a position he called a critical need after a 5-7 season. Within days, he scored two big commitments from blue chip players.

"Pay for play is a deal breaker under NIL," Rob Blair, one of the founders of Horns With Heart, told Vertuno. "This isn't pay for play. This is for actual charitable work."

The nonprofit aims to start its $50,000 payments to offensive linemen in August 2022 with a max of $800,000 per year for the entire unit. For a five-year player, that could mean $250,000 over their college career.

"Hard to see the charitable purpose when the unifying feature is paying athletes for sponsor deals. It's certainly a unique take on NIL arrangements," said Brian Mittendorf, an accounting professor at Ohio State's Fisher College of Business with a focus on nonprofits. "The way it's packaged, it comes across more as a way to support the athletes as opposed to a way to achieve a charitable objective."

Blair said the required charity work could be in-person appearances, promotion or representation, but the work has to be done to get paid. "This organization was started for purely altruistic means," he said.

Blair said his group has a "great working relationship" with school compliance officials, but Texas officials did not respond to Vertuno's requests for comment. 

NCAA President Mark Emmert said last week the NCAA has looked into several unidentified NIL agreements, including at Brigham Young Univerwity and the University of Miami, but has so far found most schools are correctly following the guidelines that do exist.

Related: NCAA Investigating NIL Deals at BYU, Miami

"There's not much to limit where these deals can go," Gabe Feldman, director of Tulane's sports law program, told Vertuno. "And so I think it's sort of a natural consequence that schools and boosters, athletes and agents and sponsors are going to find ways to exploit every opportunity they can, right?"

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