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BY Jeremy Werner, Illini Inquirer, July 1, 2022

CHAMPAIGN, IL — Josh Whitman admits that he and others in his Illinois athletics department sometimes are still adjusting to the reality of the last year — that they can openly discuss, embrace and even now facilitate student-athletes getting paid by third parties.

“This is something that for years we were told could not happen. So all of us I think have some knots in our stomachs around these topics because they’re just so different than what we have all grown up knowing,” said Whitman, the Illinois athletics director. “So a big part of our effort during the first 12 months has simply been recalibrating the way that people who support our program think about this particular topic. It’s not a below-the-table transaction. It’s something we can talk about with a straight face and a clear conscience.”

Though there has been a required shift in thinking around student-athletes getting paid through name, image and likeness deals — which as of Friday has been allowed now for a calendar year — Whitman and Illinois have taken a proactive and progressive approach in embracing NIL and trying to use the tectonic shift in college athletics to their advantage.

A year ago, Whitman and Illinois athletes stood with Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker at the State Farm Center for a ceremony and press conference welcoming the new era with open arms. Behind the scenes, Whitman last spring hired the program’s first NIL coordinator, Kam Cox — one of the first in the country with his job designation — to spearhead the Illini’s NIL operation and education.

Since then, the Illini also lobbied hard for the state to change its NIL law to allow the athletics department to directly facilitate deals for its student-athletes. The Illini have hinted at even more adaptations in the future to allow the program to remain at the forefront of maximizing NIL’s impact and minimizing potential present and future challenges.

“For us, one of the reasons we want to really lean into NIL is that we anticipated and saw it to be true that having a really good NIL program is one of the best ways in 2022 to make sure you can establish a competitive advantage for this intense period of disruption for college athletics where it’s so important to do so,” Cox told Illini Inquirer.

Whitman on Tuesday during his annual media roundtable said Illinois student-athletes totaled 400 NIL deals among 150 student-athletes. Half of those deals — and most of the money — went toward men’s basketball and football players, but all 21 sports were represented and female student-athletes accounted for 35% of the total NIL deals for the program, though Cox said “compensation admittedly is lopsided” in favor of male student-athletes.

What student-athletes make off NIL is mostly whispered and difficult to discern. Illinois does not provide figures, and Illini athletes have not shared those figures. But NIL clearly is having an impact on student-athletes, coaches (who recruit those athletes) and the Illini athletic department. Illinois is adamant about making sure it is and remains a positive impact.

“This new thing we knew could be just as important,” Cox said. “Turns out, it has been on the front, so we wanted to make sure we did a really good job. So, honestly, folks have really leaned in. I think for us, we have taken a very active approach. …We also see ourselves as something of leaders in the space.”

Cox seemed to have a pretty good start to a promising career. The bright and loquacious lawyer was practicing business law in New York City at one of the nation’s most prestigious firms when he heard about an interesting job opening at Illinois, one he’d never seen before: NIL coordinator.

Cox, who had worked previously in athletic programs at Auburn, Vanderbilt and Rutgers, was excited about the new frontier in college athletics and the opportunity it might provide him.

“For me, it was the opportunity to jump in on something that I thought might be a big deal really early on,” Cox said. “…What I did know was there was a moment of disruption, and the disruption creates opportunity.”

Cox, who joined Illinois the month before NIL was put into law in Illinois, is a personal embodiment of Whitman’s proactive approach to NIL. Cox, who currently is one of the foremost experts in the NIL space in the country, serves as the point man in everything NIL at Illinois. One of his biggest duties is educating student-athletes on name, image and likeness.

And while student-athletes now can put some extra money in their bank accounts — some of them, sizable sums of money — through NIL, Cox thinks the real-life financial literacy education of NIL may be the biggest positive long-term impact of the new phenomenon.

“The main way that it’s interacted with them and therefore kind of impacted their experience has to be with just their general business awareness,” Cox said. “…The truth is that those are things that our student-athlete development team and general adults have been trying to teach general young folks for a long time. But NIL gives you a real context for that.”

Cox recently met with a pair of Illinois football players about a new NIL deal, and one complained that he wouldn’t take home as much pay as he originally thought. The lesson: the impact of taxes.

“I said, ‘That’s how taxes work. That’s life. If you want to complain about how taxes, why you don’t go ask Coach B [Bret Bielema] about how taxes work?’” Cox recalled. “I said, ‘Look, if you guys continue to build your brands off the field, perform well on the field, eventually you’re going to be really complaining about taxes at a much higher number.’”

Cox also now can serve as a conduit to student-athletes inking money-making marketing deals. The Illini and other in-state athletic programs originally were prohibited from facilitating NIL deals between third parties and their student-athletes, but Cox and Whitman lobbied for and shaped an amendment to the state law that dropped that restriction — and similar law changes have passed many other states this spring and summer.

Cox said the amendment has bettered the process for both sides of the deal because with its resources and connections Illinois can help student-athletes facilitate more NIL deals while Illinois can point businesses or individuals to the best-fitting student-athlete for a potential NIL deal.

Cox also serves as the main point of contact for the NIL Collective, the Illini Guardians, who raise funds to disperse to Illinois student-athletes for NIL deals, and Cox has helped advise the Guardians to make sure their activities are within the patchwork of NIL rules and don’t put the program at risk.

Cox, along with Whitman, also is steering the ship for how Illinois approaches the future of NIL. Both hinted at possible additions to the Illinois NIL strategy with Whitman saying the Illini could add more external parties, including consultants to help in the space. What’s clear is that Cox and Whitman are continuing to try to be at the forefront of NIL’s evolution.

“First year, in hindsight, I think we’ve made great progress. I think we very much remain in a fluid, evolutionary state,” Whitman said. “So we’re continuing to push internally to be dynamic, to stay cutting edge, to innovate in this space.”

Whitman’s embrace of NIL is as much strategic as it is philosophical. If he and Illinois dragged their feet in this new frontier, the Illini may have been left behind. So Whitman and the Illini went on the offensive and have cultivated an NIL program that appears to have become an advantage — and potentially catapulting force — for the athletic department, especially men’s basketball.

“I think it has [become an advantage]. I think it has,” Whitman told Illini Inquirer. “I don’t think we’re the best NIL program in the country. I think we’re a long way from the worst.”

The NIL rules — whether enforced or not is another topic — say Illinois cannot use NIL as an inducement for recruits to attend Illinois. In other words, Illinois is not allowed to promise recruits a certain NIL figure to entice prospects to sign with the Illini. But Illinois is not precluded from selling its NIL infrastructure — or its current student-athletes’ NIL realities, similar to the way the UI Business School cannot guarantee a job but can provide stats about its college’s graduates.

Cox said he personally sees programs that give straight inducement NIL pitches — come here and you’ll make this much — as “a little lazy” because he feels it’s unnecessary if your program is doing NIL correct.

So when Cox meets with recruits — and he is one part of the recruiting process — he sells the Illini’s NIL education structure, the Illini’s creative branding department (which has expanded) and the current success of Illini athletes on the NIL front.

“[Inducements] might work with a 16-year-old or a 17-year-old, but it’s within the rules and it’s actually better to say, ‘Here, we actually do have people who have made $100,000.’ If you actually have that, there’s some real value to being able to talk about that,” Cox said. “So I talk about what our current athletes have made, and I talk about what our structures are and how we can offer support.

“Basically what I’m saying is, ‘Look, I’m not going to promise you a dollar, but if you come here and you maximize this platform, you have the opportunity to make a significant amount of money. And you should believe me because have folks who have actually done that.’ I think a lot of schools who are kind of slower to lean into NIL or are behind for whatever reason kind of have to just rely on recruiting inducements because they don’t really have any examples.”

The approach seems to be working, especially for the men’s basketball program — the department’s highest-profile program. While Michigan basketball star Hunter Dickinson has publicly complained about Michigan’s NIL approach, highly-coveted Baylor transfer Matthew Mayer mentioned “NIL is good up there” when discussing the reasons he committed to Illinois. That’s music to Cox’s ears.

“The success of men’s basketball has made me a bit busier, but it’s definitely a good busy that I want to lean into,” Cox said. “And I’d like to accelerate.”

Illinois basketball coach Brad Underwood signed the No. 6 recruiting haul in the country, which includes the No. 9 prep recruiting class and the No. 2 transfer class, and NIL seems to be a part of the Illini’s winning recruiting sell, along with recent success on the court, state-of-the-art facilities and a highly-regarded coaching staff.

That’s the whole idea for Illinois: that NIL isn’t the only reason a prospect comes to Illinois — but it strengthens the overall sell. 

“The same way that we talk about how great our academics are, the same way we talk about how great our fan base is, our social media following, the Big Ten Network, our media deals, on down the list; name, image, likeness is just another thing that we have now inserted into the recruiting experience for our prospective student-athletes,” Whitman said. “If we can say, ‘Here are some examples that are happening with our men and women,’ then we can allow them to connect the dots and assumptions about whether those opportunities are similar opportunities that will be available to them.”

Adam Fleischer understood why the Illinois athletic department might not fully embrace his start-up group. After all, a group of alumni forming a “collective” with the goal of funneling funds to student-athletes sounds like something that the university would try to avoid at all costs in the previous era of college athletics. So Fleischer, a founding member of the NIL collective Illini Guardians, knew his group would have to prove itself to Whitman and Cox.

“The university was rightfully very reluctant to support a collective at the beginning,” Fleischer told Illini Inquirer. “The university didn’t know what a collective can be doing or what a collective should be doing and wanted to make sure that whatever a collective does is a proper reflection of the integrity of the University of Illinois and the direction they want to go. That’s a very difficult path to cross when you don’t know which direction you want to go because no one’s ever done this.”

But more than six months after the official launch of the Guardians, the Illinois athletics department is a full-throated supporter of the group, a third-party organization that raises and disperses NIL funds to Illini student-athletes in return for marketing and philanthropic appearances.

Whitman, basketball coach Brad Underwood and football coach Bret Bielema all made appearances at a Guardians event in Decatur that attracted hundreds of Illinois fans — another sign of approval and partnership with Illinois athletics.

“It’s a very positive, productive relationship,” Whitman said. “You’ll see us be a very visible presence around their activities moving forward.”

Fleischer and the Guardians have proven during the last year to Illinois that they are well-organized and well-intentioned. Cox and Guardians leaders have remained in constant contact about how to operate within current NIL rules and best make an impact.

Fleischer said the group’s goal in starting the group was “to kind of harness the opportunity of the world’s largest alumni base to allow these kids to take advantage of the right opportunities in the right way.” But as the name of the group suggests, the Guardians wanted to guard against the potential negative impact of NIL on Illini student-athletes and the athletics program. In the early days of NIL, Fleischer wanted to make sure the go-to Illini collective wasn’t run by bad actors.

“I was surprised that frankly universities that perhaps had been doing this unethically in the past saw it as an opportunity to kind of continue unethical ways and try to retrofit it into the NIL laws,” Fleischer said. “It just appeared so blatantly arrogant and inappropriate. I was surprised at how many instances we saw of people wearing that as a badge of honor with just unbridled arrogance.

“I was really concerned about protecting our kids and serving as kind of ethical guides and protectors of the temptations and the kind of predatory influences that we felt were going to follow the NIL laws. Kind of that protective role to make sure that the university and students were entering this new age in the strongest way possible was kind of the first thing.”

During the last year, the Guardians have facilitated about 100 NIL deals with student-athletes, mostly tied to philanthropic efforts — a big goal of the NIL collective that Fleischer says separates it from most other NIL collectives. Most of those deals — Fleischer did not provide total financial figures — came with one event “Day Off Social” during which the Guardians paid Illini athletes to not use social media for an entire day. Football players Alex Palczewski and Isaiah Williams also were paid to attend an event for children in former Illinois basketball player Tracy Abrams’ Chicago Positive Impact youth group. Fleischer said the Guardians are setting up an NIL deal between a group of Illinois offensive linemen and local food banks as well.

The Guardians’ next phase will include launching a subscription setup for supporters around Aug. 1. Fans will be able to join the group at differing levels of financial commitment per month and receive apparel, autographs and even personal messages from Illini student-athletes.

Fleischer said Illinois fans took some time to adjust to the new reality that such a collective was both above board and necessary to compete, but he said the interest and support the Guardians now are receiving is a sign of why NIL can be a positive for Illinois athletics.

“The thing that surprised me was the avalanche of outpouring of Illini support at the ground level,” Fleischer said. “I was humbled, shocked and blown away of everyday people contacting us from across the country wanting to lend some type of hand to help elevate the University of Illinois program. While you saw the guy at Miami and the people at Texas and Mark Cuban at Indiana, and you saw instances of where there were two or three well-heeled donors funding some massive program– for Illini Guardians we saw and continue to see the groundswell — to use Coach’s phrase — your everyday people who have been sitting on the sidelines in the woodwork for decades wanting to come forward and help with something. This is it. It is amazing to see and kind of humbling.”

The next steps for the Guardians include, of course, getting bigger and better. Fleischer said the group of volunteers — who don’t take any money that is donated for themselves — could in the near term add a full-time employee to run the non-profit organization. But Fleischer said a focus of the group is to “inject some type of equity of opportunity.” The goal isn’t just to help Illinois men’s basketball — though it’s clearly a priority — but to help all Illini student-athletes.

“We are trying not to focus and doing contracts with two or three kids on the basketball team at the expense of the other 10,” Fleischer said. “We’re trying to guard against having the university’s NIL focus fall on the basketball team at the expense of the football program. We’re trying not to have the NIL opportunities revolve around the men’s sports at the expense of the women’s sports.”

This type of approach is why the Guardians have earned the Illini stamp of approval. Whitman and Cox during the last month have encouraged Illinois fans to interact with the NIL collective.

“The reason you can trust that group is because of the relationship that that group has shown a willingness to have with our athletic department,” Cox said of the Illini Guardians. “They are a third-party group, but we hope that we’ve been able to indicate that it’s a group of folks that we are in regular communication with and that we trust and that we’re able to kind of influence to some degree. The group really cares about how they can help the university of Illinois’ athletic programs. …They never do anything that’s at odds with that.”

Added Fleischer: “We constructed Illini Guardians in a way to kind of demonstrate a path and to demonstrate how NIL could work ethically, how you could develop fan base community and how it could be done broadly to benefit all the student-athletes and not just a few. Once we showed the university that vision and showed them the infrastructure to make it happen, they then got on board with the stamp of approval and a true partnership.”

et, Illinois knows its operating in an NIL space that is largely operating without much outside oversight. In the aftermath of a resounding defeat in the Alston vs. the NCAA case, the NCAA has seemingly been too spooked of more lawsuits — a potential threat to its existence in the wake of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s fiery opinion — to provide much guidance or enforcement of NIL rules. So each school is mostly operating within its own state’s framework of NIL laws, if there are any.

“I think we still very much remain in a testing phase,” Whitman said. “It feels like there’s a lot of testing of the boundaries, trying to figure out exactly what the rules of the road are. A lot of the things we anticipated would be challenges have been challenges. We have a patchwork of state laws that all have differing levels of engagement and restriction. We have a federal government that hasn’t chosen to get involved. We have an NCAA that in part due to the Alston decision is a little uneasy to insert itself directly. So as a result, we have a set of rules that essentially amount to posted speed limits but there aren’t a lot of cops on the road. So how are we going to navigate in that space?”

Illinois has largely embraced NIL, but Whitman, Cox and the Guardians do seem intent on making sure Illinois stays within the existing rules. But reports and speculation of players receiving NIL inducements to attend or transfer to schools are rampant. Whitman admitted it’s difficult to “separate fact from fiction” for athletics leaders, fans and media, but that there is “a lot of sizzle where maybe there isn’t a lot of steak” in the discussion about NIL. Illinois says it is focused more on the latter.

“From our perspective, we always — in every element of our program — want to be more about the steak than about the sizzle,” Whitman said. “There are situations we can have both, but we have worked very hard to make sure that the substance of our program matches some of the conversation around it.”

Cox said he didn’t foresee NIL, the transfer portal and the one-time transfer rule creating a potential college football free agency where players could go to the highest bidder. But the NCAA said this spring that it was investigating potential NIL violations, though it remains to be seen how effective that will be. Though Cox cautions that the number of athletes who will transfer solely due to NIL numbers is rather small.

“There are very few student-athletes who should be transferring exclusively because they think what is going to happen in NIL,” Cox said. “I love the fact that folks have transferred because it’s a part of it … that should be a part of that discussion and are a part of that discussion. But it’s inevitable that there are going to be people who are bad actors out there who are going to be promising stuff, and in that situation, it does become just a roundabout way of pay for play.

“Whether the NCAA will solve that has to do with what the NCAA’s authority is, and that’s changing every day. …There will have to be some level of holistic solution. I don’t know if that comes in the near-term. I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know how that gets administered. But for now, I don’t think it can necessarily get solved by the current NCAA and definitely not in short order.”

NIL has changed college athletics. NIL has changed Illinois. And it seems Whitman’s proactive and progressive approach — in hiring Cox and setting a strong NIL infrastructure, hiring coaches who embrace changes in the college landscape and partnering with the Illini Guardians — is making sure that change is for the positive. He intends to keep it that way.

“Similar to how I feel about the overall program, I’m pleased with where we’re at, but I’m unsatisfied,” Whitman said. “We got a lot more room to grow. We need to continue to innovate.”

Added Cox: “I do think we have an advantage, but just like everything in college athletics, it’s not like you establish an advantage and Michigan and Michigan State and Indiana and Purdue are like, ‘Well, they got us.’ Folks are going to try to catch up on that. …We want to make sure we can improve everything we can do and build on that.”