Kedon Slovis doesn't need the added pressure of name, image and likeness benefits to know the dangers of failing at football. It hit the USC quarterback last winter. Following the Trojans' Pac-12 Championship Game loss to Oregon, disgruntled bettors somehow got into his Venmo account.
No, they didn't send Slovis money. They requested it.
"After the Oregon game, they were like, 'Screw you, Slovis. You cost us X amount of money,' the quarterback said. "And they request money. I'm like, 'C'mon man.' My Facebook, I don't even use it. It's crazy to see the comments. My girlfriend's Instagram and DMs. They find you."
Losing was hard enough before the NIL era. Smart players have learned to ignore social media altogether just to keep their sanity. Now there's is a new level of scrutiny with some of the game's biggest names getting some of the game's biggest dollars for their NIL rights.
Fans may demand more for their money. Heck, teammates who aren't getting paid jack may demand more from their teammates whose coffers are being filled.
The doors opened wide on July 1 when the NCAA basically ceded control of NIL amid potential legal concerns. Now, it's basically "anything goes" rules. Several notable deals were rapid and spectacular.
LSU quarterback Myles Brennan got a pick-up from a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, dealership. BYU walk-ons got their scholarships covered. There have been plenty of other cars handed out and team-wide NIL offers made.
Wednesday marks two months since NIL rights began. The college sports world hasn't tilted on its axis. Conference realignment looks to be causing more competitive imbalance, comparatively.
Little has changed in the big picture. With endorsement deals flowing, Alabama still has many the best players. Kansas does not. In other words, this NIL thing that the NCAA decried as the end of college athletics as we know them just might work out.
It's the delicate balance elsewhere that needs to be addressed. Locker room culture must be considered. Players who won't take an NFL snap will never be as popular. Egos smash against talent. Team goals meet suddenly-lucrative personal plans.
Five of the nation's top quarterbacks all quietly landed NFL-level representation for their NIL deals. Alabama's Bryce Young signed with Creative Artist Agency (CAA), the same mega-firm that represents Beyonce, Stevie Wonder and Eli Manning. CAA super agent Jimmy Sexton represents Nick Saban, Young's coach, as well as the core of the nation's best college coaches.
Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler is with Chris Cabott, the COO, president of lead agent at Steinberg Sports and Entertainment, another giant. Leigh Steinberg was so powerful in NFL circles there was a movie loosely based on him ("Jerry Maguire"). In his 70s, Steinberg has made a comeback from alcoholism and bankruptcy. That comeback included signing Patrick Mahomes, perhaps the No. 1 brand in American sports.
"If we win ballgames and prepare the right way, everybody will benefit off this thing," said Rattler, the 2021 Heisman Trophy favorite as a redshirt sophomore.
Slovis joined Klutch Sports, the same firm that reps LeBron James, Anthony Davis and plenty of NFL players. Clemson's Uiagalelei is with VaynerSports. North Carolina's Sam Howell signed with ESM, which counts clients in the NFL and on the PGA Tour.
Go ahead and assume those quarterbacks have already met their soon-to-be NFL agents.
"When the [NIL] legislation first brought to public light what could be, we examined it," Cabott said. "It's really the same thing we do for our NFL players. We're a full service agency. We manage careers."
That's why heads are spinning a bit. A couple of months ago, such arrangements would have been Level I NCAA infractions. Now the earning landscape is wide open. Rattler signed autographs on July 31 in Chicago at what was called the first major college autograph signing (for profit). Action Network's Darren Rovell reported Oklahoma's quarterback signed his name for $150 a pop.
Heisman winner Johnny Manziel recently said on a podcast he made upwards of $30,000 selling his autograph eight years ago. At the time, Manziel's signing was against NCAA rules. he was suspended for the first half of the 2013 season opener against Texas A&M.
In 2021, an athlete's signature-for-profit is nothing more than a side hustle.
"Winning on the field is never interrupted," Cabott said.
Yes, but how hard is it to imagine Rattler appearing in a State Farm insurance commercial with Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers? Cabott was largely responsible for Mahomes' 10-year, $450 million contract with Kansas City. His other endorsement deals feature clients like Nike, Verizon, Adidas, Gillette and Nissan.
Rattler isn't rattled as he becomes a major commercial product while chasing a national championship. Winning, he said, takes care of everything.
"Not everybody will make the same, but everybody will benefit," Rattler said.
There are cautionary tales that pre-date NIL. These are still young adults subject to the same side effects of ego-inflating compliments before their earning power was able to be mined. Being the Heisman favorite, Rattler added, is "not really a thing. Last year, we as a group, even me, listened to some hype. I think that's what brought us down being overconfident going into games, playing down to peoples' level."
The Sooners finished 9-2 in 2020, winning the Big 12 for the sixth consecutive year but missing the College Football Playoff for the first time in four seasons.
It took until Game 4 last year for Rattler to turn it around. In the first three games, Oklahoma was 1-2 as he committed several turnovers. Rattler was yanked against Texas, only to be reinserted, helping win that game in four overtimes.
"I've never been one to shy away from the big moments," Rattler said. "I always want the ball in my hands to end the game. I feel safe with the ball in my hand. [The benching] was like a little timeout or two. I knew I was coming back in."
We can only hope other NIL-era athletes are as focused as Rattler. Oregon All-American defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux has long been self-aware of his on- and off-field abilities. His NIL deals include an endorsement contract with United Airlines and an NFT with Nike CEO Phil Knight.
"I made the joke: I'm the concierge," Thibodeaux said. "I open doors for people. When I first got there as a freshman … I saw Phil Knight. I had the heart to tell him, 'Hey, you're going to make my shoe one day.'"
Clemson's sophomore quarterback certainly has adapted. Uiagalelei seems wise beyond his years. It was certainly helpful that he started two games as a freshman after Trevor Lawrence contracted COVID-19. Dr. Pepper saw his potential, too. The soda brand made Uiagalelei its first active college athlete client. He will be featured in the "Fansville" commercials, making it the first known NIL deal with a major national brand in a national commercial.
"As long as you don't make that your main priority, you won't have a lot of distractions," Uiagalelei said in late May before NIL was implemented. "Shoot, college is hard enough. You gotta deal with that, football, you have a girlfriend, a lot of distractions. As long as you have a plan, it's just another thing."
Saban created headlines in July when he said Young already had NIL deals worth close to $1 million. It didn't matter if the statement was accurate; Saban was basically telling every recruit in the country they could come to Alabama and earn big money.
Young reportedly has a six-figure deal with Cash App that will feature him in a commercials with New York Giants QB Daniel Jones and San Francisco 49ers QB Trey Lance. All that before making his first college start.
"That really goes back to our culture," Young said last week. "There always have been distractions. There will always be distractions. That's something Saban has talked about and instilled in us for a long time. We always know whatever happens externally for one person doesn't really have anything to do with our goal. Between these lines and in this building, it's about how we can get better and improve."
Mack Brown is having a career renaissance recruiting like he's 49 at age 69. North Carolina may be the next-best thing this season to Clemson in the ACC. Howell is his best quarterback since Colt McCoy led Texas to the BCS Championship Game in 2009.
"What we're realizing with players is not everybody on the team is going to make a whole lot of money," Brown said. "Make it about your ball, not your brand. Without your ball, you're not going to make any money."
"There's not a whole lot of jealousy in the locker room," Howell said. "People know, if you put the work in and you perform well on the field, you'll be in the same position."
The common approach as far as these mega deals are concerned seems to be forming a sort of protective NIL shield around the college athlete so as not to distract him. Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz has a trademark, social media account, T-shirt sales and commercial deals all handled by an NIL team that includes his family. Mertz is basically an athlete-CEO who turns a thumb up or down as deals are brought to him.
"Life is all about balance," the sophomore said. "You can put all your eggs in one basket and do NIL like crazy, or you can put eggs in your basket and go win games."
Cabott is at a monster firm in its 46th year with a new NIL message. Steinberg Sports' oldest client is 30; its youngest is Rattler at age 20.
"Everyone gets the same advice," Cabott said. "Keep your nose to the grindstone. Keep the main thing, the main thing. The more you excel in life, the more people you'll have cheering you and the less jeering you."
Slovis knows from experience. Entering his third season with the Trojans, he is chasing his first Pac-12 title. At least that's the standard he will be held to on social media.
"You have to act like that's part of the game," he said. "Hey, you're important enough in their life they're going out of their way to talk trash and get in your Venmo requests."