As NIL Collectives Change Collegiate Sports, Harvard Lags Behind | News

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Proponents of name, image, or likeness collectives — donor-funded groups that pay student-athletes according to NCAA rules — have frequently warned that if Harvard does not adapt to peer Division I institutions by establishing a collective, the College will risk losing top talent to other schools where athletes can earn more money.

Their worst fears were realized on Tuesday when star freshman basketball guard Malik O. Mack ’27 entered the transfer portal — a decision Mack was expected to make in order to explore opportunities for a six-figure deal to star on a team outside the Ivy League.

The collegiate athletics landscape was permanently changed in 2021, when the NCAA adopted policies that gave student-athletes the right to profit off their name, image, and likeness, following a landmark Supreme Court decision.

But as colleges and universities across the country have embraced NIL and supported alumni-led efforts to provide financial support for players, Harvard and its fellow Ivy League schools have refused to follow suit.

In the years since, the new policy, along with rules making it easier for athletes to transfer, has sparked nationwide debate about the role of NIL collectives in player recruitment and development. It has also placed Harvard in a disadvantageous position as its main selling point — the prestigious education offered by Harvard — is counteracted by the amount of money players could make elsewhere.

While these collectives, which primarily serve football and basketball programs, have no direct affiliation with universities or athletic programs, they are widely understood to quietly work with coaches and play a role in recruitment.

Harvard has no such collective and, for now, seems intent on not having one.

Last May, the school sent out a letter to donors distancing itself from a supposed attempt to create a collective, but one never materialized. This leaves student athletes to find NIL deals individually.

If students were to receive money through an NIL collective, that money would be subject to review from the financial aid office in determining aid packages, according to College spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo.

Richard Kent, a legal consultant to Student Athlete NIL — a group that runs NIL collectives for several schools — said while the Ivy League or Harvard can’t prohibit donors from forming a collective, the donors he’s spoken to about founding one have taken issue with the idea.

“I’ve talked to boosters of Ivy League schools, donors, boosters,” Kent said. “And I keep getting a similar refrain: we don’t have an appetite for this.”

‘A Student First’

Several donors said that Harvard’s athletic program functions differently than athletics at schools with lucrative NIL collectives.

Thomas W. Mannix ’81, a former Harvard basketball player and donor to the Friends of Harvard Basketball, said he appreciates Harvard Athletics’ focus on the academic benefits of attending the school.

“Yes, you’re a basketball player or a football player or a hockey player, but you’re a student first, and I’ve always respected that,” Mannix said.

He drew a distinction between Harvard, which does not offer athletic scholarships, and other basketball programs, which have capitalized on their players without compensating them.

“I think there’s been pride in the Harvard athletic department and the Harvard culture that the Ivy League has been able to compete in Division I sports without giving athletic scholarships,” Mannix said.

Harvard athletics is headquartered in the Murr Center. Harvard's program functions differently than those with lucrative NIL collectives.

Harvard athletics is headquartered in the Murr Center. Harvard’s program functions differently than those with lucrative NIL collectives. By Timothy R. O’Meara

Chris F. Pizzotti ’08, a former Harvard quarterback, said he appreciates that Harvard can offer both a high quality education and an opportunity to play against Division I collegiate athletes.

“You’re getting a world class education and getting to compete at an unbelievably high level,” Pizzotti said. “And I think that trumps a lot of the short term gains of going to an NIL-dominated school.”

But for players like Mack, the ability to make a life-changing amount of money in college can outweigh the benefits Harvard has to offer.

Palumbo noted in an email that Harvard treats athletics as a “co-curricular or extra-curricular activity” that contributes to a student’s development.

“The choice of Harvard for varsity athletes is one that prioritizes the quality of the education and degree they earn,” Palumbo wrote. “The network of alumni, Harvard name, and the education received are among compelling reasons to be a student-athlete at Harvard.”

‘If Harvard Doesn’t Adapt’

The decision by Mack to enter the NCAA transfer portal comes amid months of debate about Harvard’s challenge to retain athletes amidst the allure of NIL opportunities at other colleges.

Philip C.B. Furse ’93, a former Harvard Football player and member of the Friends of Harvard Football, is concerned about forcing players like Mack to choose between short term income and an education that can lead to longer term success.

“Think about what you’re asking him and his family to do. One the one hand, he can stay and get a Harvard education,” Furse said. “But at the same time, I promise you he could probably go to a Kentucky, Duke, Carolina, or one of these really top places and could probably get with these NILs like hundreds of thousands to upwards of a million dollars,” he added.

Mannix, the former basketball player, said he was sympathetic to the individual considerations Mack might be making by exploring the option to transfer.

“I’m so respectful on a personal level of people’s emergencies, needs, desires, like whatever it is, I’m 100 percent on board with the freedom of him to make that decision,” Mannix said.

Harvard basketball star Malik O. Mack '27 entered the transfer portal on Tuesday, likely to explore opportunities for NIL deals.

Prashanth Kumar ’21, who worked as the manager of Harvard’s tennis team during college, said Harvard has top tier talent, including Mack and others, who might be tempted by NIL money to transfer elsewhere.

“I’m just nervous that if Harvard doesn’t adapt, then we have the opportunity to lose these athletes,” Kumar said.

Eric A. Spiegel ’80, a former Harvard football player and donor to the football program, said he thinks while most Harvard recruitment wouldn’t be affected by the lack of a collective, in a few cases it might cause the school to lose out on recruits.

“I think some of these really talented players who can play major college football, I think, on the margin, some of them will now opt to go take the NIL path and not go to an Ivy,” Spiegel said.

Furse expressed dismay with the impact NIL deals have on athletes’ professional ambitions, saying that it incentivizes them to stay in collegiate competition.

“That’s why some of these kids aren’t even going pro now, because they actually make more money in college,” Furse said.

‘Not a Question of Money’

Alumni who spoke to The Crimson for this article had mixed opinions about starting a collective at Harvard.

Pizzotti expressed hesitation at starting an NIL collective at Harvard because its creation could spark an “arms race” between schools.

“I’m not supportive of starting a collective,” Pizzotti said.

Michael H. Bassett ’64, a former Harvard football player, said he believes in the principles of NIL deals but is unsure how an NIL collective would fit into the current Ivy League model for recruiting athletes.

“They’re not coming for the money or the publicity,” he said. “When they come into the Ivies, they’re coming because they want to play and they want to be associated with that particular university.”

Kumar, however, said he was confused that a collective has yet to be formed at Harvard.

“I don’t know exactly why one hasn’t formed because all the athletics programs have massive, massive donations — it’s not a question of money coming into the programs,” Kumar said.

Spiegel said he would donate to a collective if it would help Harvard remain competitive. He noted that he values the Harvard network and has long donated to Harvard football and helped athletes get summer internships.

“If a collective can help us bring in some better players, I definitely support it,” he said.

As Ivy League schools continue to hold out on establishing NIL collectives, some students are looking at other options.

At Dartmouth, basketball players voted to form a union earlier this year following a decision by a National Labor Relations Board regional official in February that the players are employees of Dartmouth.

The vote came a year after one former and one current basketball player at Brown filed a class action lawsuit against the Ivy League for not providing athletic scholarships.

Spiegel said that he believes the vote to form a union is partially in response to the lack of NIL collectives at Ivy League schools.

“This is students basically saying ‘OK, well I am playing the sport for the college,’” he said.

‘A Fairer Marketplace’

Gabby S. Anderson ’26, a player on the women’s basketball team, signed an NIL deal upon concluding her high school basketball career, and expressed her appreciation for being able to showcase both her athletic and artistic talents.

“My NIL experience has been wonderful for me personally, because it is also tied into my shoe customization business,” Anderson said. “I get to sell myself as not only a Harvard student, basketball player, but also as an artist.”

Harvard Athletics announced last July that it would use the INFLCR athlete app to help student athletes access media content to share on their own.

Fabiola Belibi ’26, a student track athlete, said she faced various obstacles procuring NIL deals.

“I have found it extremely difficult to secure NIL opportunities only because of the lack of visibility that is in the Ivy League — it’s bad,” Belibi said.

Belibi said she believes the lack of visibility is because athletics aren’t “highlighted in the Ivy League.”

“They do not invest in videographers and photographers at meets or games, it’s all student-run,” Belibi added

Unlike other universities, the Crimson’s track and field official page is either student-run or run by a coach, according to Belibi.

“That’s unheard of at other, bigger sports universities,” she said.

“I think the biggest thing that could really help us is an NIL program and a social media team for the athletic side of Harvard,” she added.

Thor G.C. Griffith ’24, a senior Harvard football player who will play at the University of Louisville for his fifth year of eligibility, said the potential to make NIL money at another school played only a small part in his transfer decision.

“I wanted to go to the place that was going to develop me as the best football player and give me the best shot of going as high as I possibly could in next year’s draft,” Griffith said.

Griffith also said he thought a collective at Harvard might contribute with recruitment and would be good for the current players. He noted that NIL money would help players avoid “pinching pennies” at the end of the semester and give them an incentive to “put their all” into the program.

“It would definitely ease some of the burdens that come with playing Division I football and attending an Ivy League institution,” Griffith said.

Tyler J. Neville ’24, another senior on the football team who will play for the University of Virginia in his fifth year, also said players would appreciate a collective, but predicted that one wouldn’t be formed as it would cause “uproar” on campus.

“Being realistic, I know that’s not going to happen,” Neville said.

Some alumni also expressed their frustration with the overall effect of NIL rules on college sports outside of Harvard and the Ivy League.

“When I talk to coaches at other universities, they are all unanimously saying that this is not a sustainable model,” Pizzotti said. “It’s robbing a lot of these coaches from the joy of coaching because they recruit and they feel like it’s a transactional activity.

For Mannix, all the debate around NIL in college athletics reflects growing pains as the NCAA adjusts from years of exploitative behavior from schools other than Harvard, that profited from players without paying them.

“I think you have to just accept the fact that when you break up a monopoly, nothing will be familiar and some of the things that you were familiar with that you liked are gone,” Mannix said, “But you hope that overall, it leads to what’s considered a fairer marketplace for everybody.”

In the Ivy League, Kent believes that one of the universities will eventually break through and form a collective.

“It’s impossible for nobody who is a donor at these eight schools to be interested in NIL,” Kent said. “It’s impossible.”

—Staff writer Jo B. Lemann can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on X @Jo_Lemann.

—Staff writer Tyler J.H. Ory can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on X @tyler_ory.

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