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McFeely: Time for NDSU to jump into NIL pool

FBS schools now have their supporters setting up NIL collectives, which are used to attract players. Bison football coach Matt Entz said he believes NDSU lost three recruits this year 'due to

Matt Entz
NDSU football coach Matt Entz said the Bison lost three recruits this year to schools with more advanced NIL programs.
Dave Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — Matt Entz spent a portion of his time on the Missouri Valley Football Conference media day Zoom on Tuesday talking about his North Dakota State players going to Island Park pool for a break from fall camp. The Bison football coach said his seniors let it be known to underclassmen that the trip is mandatory.

What a perfect analogous lead-in to today's topic.

It is time for NDSU and its supporters to jump in the name, image and likeness pool that's sweeping college athletics. With both feet. Deep end.

And it is mandatory, if NDSU wants to maintain its grip at the top of the Football Championship Subdivision and continues to have aspirations of moving up a level to the Football Bowl Subdivision.

NIL, for those uneducated, allows student-athletes to earn money off their name, image and likeness. They can individually get paid sponsorship dollars by businesses, based on their popularity or accomplishments. Like pro athletes do with TV commercials.

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North Dakota State's Phoenix Sproles was one of the earliest Bison athletes to make NIL deals last year. David Samson / The Forum
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Yes, for old-timers it seems unsavory that college athletes can be paid for being college athletes (ignoring the fact some coaches have cheated forever and athletes have long gotten sweet summer jobs because ... they are athletes). It's distasteful for many, just like cost of attendance and the transfer portal were.

It's also reality, just like cost of attendance and the transfer portal.

College athletics, including NDSU, adjusted to those new realities. NDSU, in fact, was a leader in the FCS and the Missouri Valley Football Conference in offering its athletes cost of attendance. Everybody else followed.

The school and its boosters don't seem quite so gung-ho about NIL. Is a school used to leading the way at its level pining for the old days? It's nonsensical.

I asked Entz his views on NIL during the conference Zoom call Tuesday. While lamenting that NIL's original intent has already been unrecognizably twisted — it was supposed to be money earned on merit once an athlete enrolled at a school, but it's instead become an incentive-based recruiting tool — Entz said "it's something we're going to have to look into as an athletic department."

Illinois State, a Valley rival, has already done more than that. The Redbirds hired two administrators in its athletic department to deal with NIL issues.

That's the rub. Universities cannot directly be involved in procuring NIL deals for their athletes, but can educate and guide them to maximize their opportunities. Instead, boosters and businesses set up third-party organizations called "collectives" that can pay athletes for endorsement deals.

Confusing? Yes. Not what college sports are supposed to represent? OK. But the train is coming and, even if old-school athletic administrators don't like it, it's never going away.

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Some NDSU athletes have already nibbled around the edges of NIL. Football player Phoenix Sproles, with a large social media following, got some deals last year. Turns out, that was rudimentary stuff.

FBS schools now have their supporters setting up collectives, which are used to attract players. Entz said he believes the Bison lost three recruits this year "due to schools A, B and C being farther ahead in the NIL process than we are."

Coaches can't talk about recruits publicly until they sign their letters of intent, but one of them surely had to be Pierre, S.D., quarterback Lincoln Kienholz . He publicly announced NDSU was one of four finalists for his services, along with Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Kienholz chose Washington.

The Bison also appeared to be in the mix for two other players who committed to Power Five schools. And while NDSU will always be at a huge disadvantage recruiting against the big boys, they were clearly in the conversation with Kienholz. So why not give yourself every possibility?

"It is something that we're going to have to address and I'm currently in conversations with the administration about what we can do or what we're comfortable with here at North Dakota State," Entz said.

It doesn't seem complicated.

NDSU will play at Arizona in mid-September. The FBS school is a member of the Pac-12 and at that conference's media day, head coach Jedd Fisch said Wildcats boosters had finalized setting up a collective named " Friends of Wilbur & Wilma." It is a 501c3, a charitable organization for tax purposes, to which Arizona supporters can donate money.

"Friends of Wilbur & Wilma is a fan-driven and alumni-led Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) program for University of Arizona student-athletes, alumni, and fans," the organization's website says. "When you commit to Friends of Wilbur & Wilma, you’re committing to maximizing opportunities for student-athletes to build their brand and earn compensation."

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No, NDSU is not Arizona. It is not a member of the Pac-12. It is not Power Five. It is not FBS. But if the Bison want to continue to push the envelope in the FCS and Missouri Valley Football Conference, they'd best figure out how to navigate NIL waters.

It's kind of greasy, for sure. But it's within the rules. So what's the hesitation?

"I do know that just like the transfer portal, it's something we're going to have to look into as an athletic department. How far we go and where we go with it, I still think is up in the air," Entz said. "We're at the ground level, but I do believe this is probably the last class we recruit where it's not a hot topic or a bigger topic than it is."

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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