UW AD Jen Cohen, on the current state of NIL: Recruiting inducements and pay-for-play are ‘taking kids away from schools’

“I’m going to state the obvious,” UW athletic director Jen Cohen began, “and that’s that this is a very complex and challenging time for college athletics.”

In an annual presentation to the University of Washington Board of Regents Wednesday, Cohen and UW chief financial officer Kate Cullen outlined the athletic department’s budget in the 2022 financial year — which ends June 30 — and provided detailed projections for FY23 (all of which will be analyzed in an extensive story next week).

But — as is often the case in the current landscape of college athletics — the conversation quickly turned to the most obvious and complex of challenges:

Name, image and likeness laws.

(Or lack thereof.)

Of course, for the totally uninitiated, “NIL” guidelines were instituted by the NCAA on July 1, 2021 and intended to allow college athletes to profit via autograph sales, sponsored social media posts, personal streaming channels, training lessons/camps, speaking engagements , promotional appearances, personal merchandise, endorsement deals and more. Some states — Washington not included — have passed individual NIL laws as well.

But according to Cohen, Washington faces two primary problems.

“One is that people are still breaking the rules with induction. They’re taking kids away from schools,” UW’s athletic director said Wednesday. “And I think (the NCAA) will make an example of a couple schools. I think they have to. There’s a lot of pressure to do that.

“But we’re not going to be in that lane. You don’t want us to be in that lane. But we are in the lane of trying to find every student-athlete at Washington who wants an NIL deal, an NIL deal.”

In the latter lane, Cohen reported significant progress. Specifically, the seventh-year Husky athletic director stated that the entire 2021-22 UW men’s basketball team has had at least one NIL deal, more than 50 UW football players have had a deal to date, and at least one athlete from every UW sport has benefited from NIL in some capacity.

In Wednesday’s presentation, Cullen noted that their projected FY22 budget included a $1.85 million placeholder designated in part for NIL resources, and that number will increase to $2.4 million in FY23 — which “includes funding for an additional (full time employee) to support NIL education .”

“So our program is great, and it’s growing,” Cohen said. “It’s just that the headlines focus on a kid (read: recruit) that’s getting $1.2 million, or $8 million, which is absolutely pay-for-play.”

Cohen speculated Wednesday that some NIL deals announced on social media are likely inaccurate or altogether untrue — leaked online to bolster an individual athlete, collective or university’s brand.

Meanwhile, the NCAA re-clarified in a statement to its member schools Monday that contact between boosters and prospective recruits is prohibited. The NCAA’s policy has long included a “commitment to avoid pay-for-play and improper inducements tied to choosing to attend a particular school.”

But though Cohen expects the NCAA to “make an example of a couple schools,” it can’t realistically penalize the flood of existing offenses.

“While the NCAA may pursue the most outrageous violations that were clearly contrary to the interim policy adopted last summer, our focus is on the future,” board chair and Georgia president Jere Morehead said in a statement Monday. “The new guidance establishes a common set of expectations for the Division I institutions moving forward, and the board expects all Division I institutions to follow our recruiting rules and operate within these reasonable expectations.”

Which brings us to Washington’s second primary problem: on a state level, athletic departments are adhering to different sets of rules.

“Utah doesn’t have (state NIL) legislation, but their athletic director can drive a starting quarterback to go meet with a donor to get them an NIL deal, because their state laws are different than ours,” Cohen said as an example. “So even though they don’t have (state) legislation and we don’t have (state) legislation, we have state ethics laws here that are different than in Utah.”

Until a Washington state or federal law expressly allows athletic department employees to be involved in NIL operations, UW will have to rely on third parties like “Montlake Futures” — an unaffiliated for-profit collective founded by UW donors and supporters last November to develop deals for Husky athletes.

But while “Montlake Futures” has publicly opposed pay-for-play inducements, the same can’t be said for competing collectives.

“The problem with the model now is it’s not protecting students,” Cohen said. “There’s other third parties getting involved, and you (as an athletic department employee) don’t get to be involved. It’s really our responsibility to give them the best opportunity to negotiate great deals, but also make sure they’re protected. When we’re not involved in that, I’m concerned about it.”

Cohen added earlier, more directly: “What we’re unable to do that I would love to do on behalf of our students is be more involved in actually creating the deals for them.”

So, yes: it’s a very complex and challenging time for college athletics.

Without a common set of rules, or consistent enforcement, can Washington win in its present lane?

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