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By John Keilman, Chicago Tribune, January 22, 2022

CHICAGO, IL – As the once-taboo, now common practice of paying college athletes continues to spread, a group of University of Illinois boosters aims to give the money chase a do-gooder twist.

The Illini Guardians, which launched Thursday, will team up with community organizations so athletes can be paid for conducting camps and making public appearances, co-founder Adam Fleischer said in an interview.

“There will be funds available to sign contracts with the kids to lend their talents and their time to make money, but also to do it in a way that is transparent and a reflection of the integrity that the program is known for,” said Fleischer, a Chicago attorney and U. of I. graduate.

But the group, which touts the support of former Illini greats Kendall Gill, Dana Howard and Ayo Dosunmu, also plans big money deals that could land some star players six figures, a way of keeping up with the Joneses as the business of name, image and likeness — or NIL — continues to transform
college sports.

Facing an onslaught of litigation and changes in state laws, the NCAA last year cleared the way to allow college athletes to be paid for endorsing products, making personal appearances, posting social media shout-outs and other ventures.

School officials aren’t supposed to get in the middle of the deal-making, though they can offer education and guidance. About 150 of the University of Illinois’ 550 athletes have already landed NIL agreements, athletics spokesman Kent Brown said.

Many of the pacts are straightforward — Illini point guard Trent Frazier endorses the Gopuff food delivery app on Instagram, for example — but more controversial deals also have emerged around the country.

Those include agreements for companies to compensate every member of a team, as has happened with a few college football programs. The NCAA reportedly has looked into those deals as potential violations of its rule barring explicit “pay to play” arrangements.

Recruits cannot be promised deals, but with other alumni-formed NIL groups popping up at schools such as Indiana University and the University of Kansas, having one in place is becoming a competitive necessity, Fleischer said.

“There are programs that have been created simply to put the kids awash in money,” he said. “It’s challenging because that’s what we’re competing with from a national standpoint. But we are hopeful that we could do it in a way that brings a little deeper impact.”

He said the Guardians are teaming with Chicago Positive Impact, an organization founded by former Illini basketball player Tracy Abrams, to offer mentoring and coaching to Chicago Public Schools students. Fleischer said that could expand to Boys and Girls Clubs or church groups looking for Illini athletes to make appearances or hold autograph sessions.

But he added that the group envisions another tier of service that would connect “interested parties in the Illini corporate and business worlds” with athletes whose marketability would justify a six-figure deal.

“Illini Guardians will be structured to help Illini athletes achieve maximum earning potential along that continuum from altruistic to commercial, depending on the student and the marketability,” Fleischer said.

While the Guardians are trying to corral large donations, they also are looking for smaller ones among the university’s vast and worldwide alumni network. Fleischer said money could be pooled to offer opportunities to athletes in sports other than basketball and football, where most of the NIL action has taken place.

In its only day of existence, he said, the group already has been contacted by both categories of donors.

“If you do this right, it’s kind of a shining example of the way a university system is supposed to be,” Fleischer said. “If you do this right, we will have athletes benefiting and earning money that is beyond what they could get at any other program.”