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NIL forced to mix with controversies at Michigan State and Michigan football

Darien Harris, MSU Athletics’ NIL director.
Johnny Noone
Darien Harris, MSU Athletics’ NIL director.

College athletes are relying on their brand reputations, and those of the teams they play for, to help develop financial opportunities. But what happens when their team or university is in trouble?

The football programs at Michigan State and Michigan have been in the national headlines for the wrong reasons this season. First, MSU suspended Mel Tucker without pay due to allegations of sexual assault. He was later fired for cause after the allegations were proven true. Tucker is now suing MSU for wrongful termination. Then, Michigan’s head football coach, Jim Harbaugh, was suspended for the second time this season for the last three games of the regular season amid a sign stealing scandal. The school self-imposed a three game suspension for Harbaugh to start the 2023 season due to a NCAA investigation looking into infractions involving recruiting. Due to these circumstances MSU athletes have run into some problems which included one of MSU’s main collective’s Spartan Dawg For Life (SD4L).

NIL expert Keith Miller believes some bigger problems could be affected due to these situations at the schools.Miller is the vice president of Influxer, which is an NIL company that partners with college athletes to help with brand deals, merchandise, and management. Miller also travels the country going to universities teaching NIL education. Michigan State’s recent NIL controversy caught the eye of athletes at other schools.

“A lot of student-athletes ask a lot of really good questions about Michigan State. They saw the collective cancel NIL agreements with the football players. That did not go unnoticed by other student athletes around the country. I think it caused a little bit of uneasiness with trusting a collective,” said Miller.

One of MSU’s main partners in the NIL space is SD4L. SD4L has contracts with athletes from multiple sports at MSU and also a subscription base for fans to help promote the athletes.

In late September, Spartan Dawgs For Life (SD4L) canceled most of its football NIL contracts with the football team. SD4L put out a statement on September 29th to address the concerns that were being reported around the collective. SD4L press release stated, “SD4L has made the strategic decision to reduce our advertising budget with select student athletes to build a sustainable NIL model for our programs”. SD4L continued with how their subscriptions have fallen short of their expectations and that it is up to the fans to help the players.

“The Michigan State situation caused some shockwaves and had a butterfly effect around the country. People were asking questions about collectives and how easy it is for them to cancel our contracts,” said Miller.

Michigan State ]needs to restore trust with their players and the community in order to regain NIL momentum. Darien Harris, MSU Athletics’ NIL director, is working with local businesses and collectives to partner with athletes and continue to develop the NIL scene.

“Everybody is looking for a way to support them. At the end of the day, no matter what's going on at the university, the student athletes didn’t do anything - so people are asking how we can support them,” said Harris.

Harris, a former Michigan State football player and Big Ten champion, understands the controversy that took place with SD4L and the worries around it. He believes that it was a learning curve for everyone including himself, athletes, and also SD4L.

“That’s a business that decides what they want to do just like any other business. When you see some other businesses drop athletes on a professional level or decide not to work with celebrities. That's them making a decision as a business. That learning curve is there as well. Ultimately, I think it is pretty good barring the financial implications. I think it will pay dividends for the student athletes going forward,” said Harris.

Harris reiterated how he feels SD4L is a strong partner with MSU Athletics and will continue to support athletes at the NIL level. On November 16th, MSU’s NIL program had their 517 Outreach Event which connected local businesses with their athletes and also their second annual NIL celebration on November 27th.

Not too far down the road, Michigan is going through a sign stealing scandal which has already had Jim Harbaugh suspended from coaching the last three games of the season. The NCAA is also conducting their own investigation into the scandal which has already had two Michigan staffers fired. This is the NCAA’s second investigation into Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan football program involving the 2023 season. NIL is a big factor to athletes and Miller doesn’t think individual players will be affected in situations like this.

“If the student athlete is managing this correctly, like saying, ‘I'm Michigan through and through and I'm not going anywhere’, local businesses, collectives and fans are going to continue to invest in. That not type of student athlete I don’t see their NIL value being damaged,” said Miller.

Things can still change as the NCAA investigation continues to develop, but for now, NIL should continue as it is for Michigan athletes. As for both schools, they are top names in collegiate sports and Miller doesn’t see why both can not bounce back from the turmoil.

“Michigan and Michigan State have brand names. Neither of those names are going anywhere from now. In ten years both could be 1 and 2 in the country with zero issues. There is a bump in the road now and that will be dictated by the leadership at the school and how they want to land the plane. A lot of their stuff is in their control,” said Miller.

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