By Jeremy Werner, Illini Inquirer, January 20, 2022
CHAMPAIGN, IL – Adam Fleischer was a University of Illinois student when an 18-month NCAA investigation into allegations of Illini basketball providing illegal benefits to recruits — allegedly cash and cars — resulted in harsh penalties on the program. While the most serious allegations surrounding Illini all-time leading scorer Deon Thomas were unfounded by the NCAA, the NCAA found other violations and slapped the Illini with serious scholarship restrictions that halted the program’s golden-era run in the 1980s.
So for Fleischer, who has an undergraduate degree (’91) and law degree (’94) from the university, it’s a bit jarring that he now is one of the founders of an Illinois supporter group that will organize resources to funnel money to Illinois student-athletes — and that he can do so openly and with the blessing of the Illini athletics program.
“Those kinds of allegations and history were so explosive and volatile to college sports. It’s mind-blowing to now think that every program is working to figure out how to get each one of their players a car. Right?” Fleischer told Illini Inquirer. “This was the thing that was the hallmark what college sports should not be. Now, it’s the hallmark of what every university is trying to accomplish. It’s a total sea change.”
Fleischer is one of a handful of founders of a new name, image and likeness collective called Illini Guardians, a third-party organization that plans to raise and disperse NIL funds to Illini student-athletes in return for marketing and philanthropic appearances. The group of volunteers is a not-for-profit organization of well connected alumni with the goals of boosting the Illini’s NIL opportunities in a way that can also benefit communities in the state and help the student-athletes make meaningful connections.
But make no mistake, Fleischer — a lawyer with BatesCarey LLP in Chicago — and the Illini Guardians intend to help Illinois entice top talent to Illinois and keep them at Illinois through this collective.
“We knew we had to get something going to compete with these other schools because we knew this was going to be the driving force behind keeping up with the Joneses moving forward,” said Tom DiSanto, a UI alum (’87) who owns the bar Joe’s on Weed Street in Chicago and is a founder of Illini Guardians. “…We realized as alums and as supporters that we’re stakeholders in the university’s athletic department and we definitely wanted to help out where we could.”
Added Fleischer: “The nature of the programs we’re competing with are seven-figure programs that are providing six-figure opportunities for students, and we will have to compete and we’re confident that the University of Illinois will compete and will surpass those programs. Whatever a Kentucky basketball player, whatever opportunities those players may be promised, we will have to ensure that our basketball players can meet and exceed those opportunities and can do so in a way that’s reflective of what the fan base and the university would be proud of. We’re going to have to compete in that seven-figure realm. But we’re going to try to do it in a way that smacks of a little bit more transparency and integrity because I think that’s where really the long-term success of NIL meets the university structure.”
The Illini Guardians are far from the first alumni group to put together an NIL collective to benefit a Division-I program. Indiana fans started the Hoosier Hysterics NIL Collective. A Kansas group started “Sixth Man Strategies,” an NIL fund to benefit Jayhawks athletes. This week, former West Virginia athletics director Oliver Luck founded Country Roads Trust, which raises NIL funds for Mountaineers athletes.
But Fleischer said he didn’t want to model the group after Oregon’s third-party NIL program, which has received some unwanted NCAA attention because of its close corporate ties, including to Nike co-founder and Oregon supporter Phil Knight. Illini Guardians also wanted to avoid team-wide deals like BYU and Miami that also are being reviewed by the NCAA.
“This is a very, very competitive NIL world right now where you’re trying to balance getting these kids the best and biggest opportunities of any university in the country while maintaining some semblance of character and integrity,” Fleischer said. “It’s hard when not everybody in this space is playing by the same rules or the same goals.”
NIL rules do not allow players to be paid based on performance, but athletes can be compensated for providing services to a company, like lending their likeness to merchandise, autograph appearances or appearing in advertisements. Fleischer said Illini Guardians hopes to tie Illinois student-athlete deals to community-service events, like helping former Illini guard Tracy Abrams’ Chi-Positive-Impact group, which works with Chicago area schools to provide student-athletes with mentoring and coaching. “If you want your athletics to operate at the highest levels, you have to get in the game,” Fleischer said. “So the question for us is how can you get in the game that reflects the program’s values. That’s really what we’re trying to do.”
The Illini Guardians will pool money through big-money angel investors but also have a donation button on their website where Illini supporters can make donations, big or small. Fleischer emphasizes that the group is not-for-profit and that “there’s not some alum sitting on a boat with an umbrella drink” off the funds raised. While both Fleischer and DiSanto admit that the popular men’s basketball and football stars will naturally receive the biggest deals, they aim for their collective to reach all student-athletes, including women athletes.
“We want everybody in the athletic department to know that we’ll be fighting for them, whether it’s women’s swimmers or men’s basketball,” DiSanto said.
But Fleischer said the group should quickly have seven-figure funds with the ability to hand out six-figure deals to the team’s most marketable stars, likely men’s basketball players like Kofi Cockburn and Andre Curbelo, the latter who already partnered with the group to market their initiative. The goal is to put to work a sizable, passionate Illini fans base to make Illinois among the most competitive in the NIL field and entice student-athletes to attend Illinois and stay at Illinois.
“I know a lot of the players got paid under the table for years and years and years, and I thought, ‘Well, this is our chance to do it above board — and as well as that, to keep these players in the state of Illinois and in the Chicagoland area,'” DiSanto said. “With our deep fan base and large alumni, we have as much — I don’t want to say buying power — but as much power to sway these kids to stay local. Over the years, I’ve seen these great kids and great athletes and kids that would’ve really been helpful to our football and basketball programs leave for other pastures. That’s something that always bothered me, bothered a lot of people, and I think this is our chance to keep these kids at home and go out and get kids who are helpful to our athletic programs.”
The Illinois athletics program cannot actively facilitate NIL deals due to the NIL legislation that passed in the state of Illinois last summer, but the department can provide overall guidance to athletes and alumni about NIL opportunities.
The department uses the company Opendorse to help facilitate deals between athletes and companies as well. Kam Cox, who was hired in June 2021 as the Illini’s INFLUENCE Program (NIL) Coordinator, has consulted with the Illini Guardians and helped bring together the founders of the group.
“I’m excited about it,” Cox told Illini Inquirer. “This seems to be the direction several programs or supporters of several programs are moving, and I’m glad Illinois is moving in the same direction. I’m definitely in support.” Fleischer hopes the collective becomes so successful and ingrained in Illini athletics that it becomes as useful of a sell in recruiting for Illini programs as sparkling new facilities and the university’s great academics.
In the short-term, the Illini Guardians could help the Illini entice a player like Cockburn — an All-American center — to stay at Illinois for an extra season rather than make the leap to the pros. Cockburn, one of the faces of college basketball who is expected to bring in six figures of NIL funds this season after returning for a junior season, could conceivably make as much money in NIL as he could as a professional basketball player who is not earning a fulltime NBA salary.
Illinois has a checkered past of allegedly giving players impermissible benefits: from the 1960s slush fund scandal to the NCAA investigation that resulted in football coach Mike White resigning in 1988 to the investigation surrounding Thomas that halted Illini basketball’s run of success leading into the early 1990s. That, DiSanto said, caused Illinois athletics administrators and supporters to be more cautious than other programs in compliance with NCAA rules.
“I think the one thing that some people have expressed to me is in the past people were afraid getting down and dirty in recruiting. They didn’t want our coaches to do it because they didn’t want to get in trouble,” said DiSanto, who is well-connected in the Illini booster network.
“They went through the 80s in football and Deon Thomas when we lost scholarships. Now, there are guys, two in particular, who just want to make sure this stuff is all above board and they want to write big checks. They’re kind of waiting for this to kind of get up and running properly. These guys are guys that can write checks that make a difference.
“In the old days, everybody would say, ‘Well, Kansas and Kentucky, we can’t compete with them, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Well, we couldn’t compete with them because they were blatantly cheating, and we just didn’t do it. We all know that. You can quote me on that, I don’t care. We all know it. Now, if Kansas wants to pay for 150 grand for a player … I think we’re going to be able to compete with that. We are going to be able to compete with that. …It’s legalized cheating. …I think something like this is going to level the playing field.”
Given the turbulent period of Illinois athletics he witnessed when he was an undergraduate, Fleischer is still getting his bearings on the fact that he can help Illinois athletes get paid top-market dollars on the open market. But NIL has changed the landscape of college athletes. Student-athletes now can be paid openly and freely for services outside of their performance on the court.
Fleischer said those against paying college athletes can thumb their nose at NIL but doing so would put Illinois at a competitive disadvantage. Fleischer and the Illini Guardians aim to make sure Illinois could actually have an advantage now that paying players through NIL is no longer frowned upon but accepted and praised.
“This is kind of the beginning of a new era,” Fleischer said. “I see this as kind of if you picture the Wild West and you’re walking down the street, you see different saloons which are different universities. There’s people getting thrown through the windows and the music is loud. I’m hoping somewhere you see a nice saloon in the Wild West that is a little bit safer and a little bit more respectable and a little bit more impressive than the others on the street. That’s where we hope to build our success.”