It has been less than two weeks since The Athletic reported that a five-star high school football player has signed a name, image and likeness contract with a collective that could pay him $8 million by the end of his junior year. That's a clear indication the limits for NIL deals -- $8 million for a high school athlete! -- are still tough to define.
"If there is ever a time for the NCAA to go after a recruiting inducement, this would be the one," said Mit Winter, a high-profile collegiate sports attorney based in Kansas City, Missouri.
The I-word, inducement, has been the biggest concern of college coaches and administrators everywhere since the NIL era started last July 1. Since then, what is and isn't an inducement -- defined as a cash offer to play at a school -- has been the main talking point in the NIL space.
Inducements are hard to delineate. What used to be under-the-table illicit payments are now, well, above the table and almost completely allowed. Stymied by the courts and its own inaction, the NCAA last summer issued an interim one-page NIL policy that was the equivalent of a toothpick house in the face of a hurricane.
Enter the Wild, Wild West of that NIL era, which turns nine months old on April 1.
"[NIL deals are] really blowing up the interim policy, brick-by-brick," said Tom McMillen, CEO of Lead1 Association, the professional organization of FBS athletic directors.
He called the interim policy a "dead letter law", a rule that doesn't exist unless it is applied.
"If you try to enforce a law that hasn't been enforced and is routinely violated … it becomes harder and harder to put the genie back in the bottle," McMillen added.
What skeptics are finding hard to believe is that the $8 million contract, the collective and the school where the five-star prospect eventually lands are three distinct entities.
"Do you really believe that XYZ collective -- at a particular institution that is choosing to pay dollars to a particular student-athlete -- they're not doing that in an informed way [for] somebody the coaches told them they wanted to recruit?" a former Power Five AD told CBS Sports. "It's almost comical to think that wouldn't be a reality."
That sums up the fears of how high is up for NIL deals when the NCAA failed to put proper boundaries around the process last summer. Back then, no one had ever heard of collectives. Now, they are the dominating force in NIL.
Collectives are loosely defined as a group of third-party athletic department supporters who provide NIL opportunities to players.
There are 36 university-specific collectives nationwide spread between 29 schools, according to Business of College Sports.They are both for-profit and non-profit entities, but all have something in common -- rewarding talent at their affiliated institutions.
While the contract in this case states "nothing in this Agreement constitutes any form of inducement", including those words in a document does not simply make them true. Skeptics have questions.
"For guys like this, they're not worried about investment," Winter said. "They're worried about enticing recruits."
The contract was written by California-based attorney Michael Caspino whose specialties, as listed on his website, include wrongful death, product liability and construction defects. He has served as general counsel for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County, California. Caspino has also worked on NIL deals with several athletes.
"I believe [NIL opportunities are] just going to keep going up for sure, without a doubt," Caspino told 247Sports. "There will be deals and there will be larger deals than this. We're still in our infancy here. We haven't reached adolescence yet in our NIL lifetime."
For those concerned about Caspino's collegiate loyalties, his alma mater is not an issue. His undergraduate degree is from the University of Redlands.
Eventually, everything surrounding college athletics comes back to recruiting, and coaches everywhere are freaking out over the document described by The Athletic.
The contract states that, in exchange for a payment of almost $350,000, the Class of 2023 athlete will sign over his NIL rights to the collective. What follows is escalating monthly payments worth almost $2 million per year. The money would be earned for the usual in the NIL sphere -- public appearances and social media.
Could the collective withhold money if the athlete decides to transfer?
"The golden handcuff portion of it where you [theoretically] tie a kid up [is they] can't transfer," McMillen said. "That's basically what they used to do at the beginning of the NBA and music industry. They lock them up and take up their rights for a lifetime."
The NCAA has become virtually powerless in its ability to intervene. Since the landscape has evolved, the NCAA has made noise about investigating deals, but the reality is the association has lost so much of its legal traction as a governing body that it can't do much.
"If it's not illegal, it's not cheating," said Ramogi Huma, college player activist and longtime NCAA antagonist. "Some people are starting to demonize money going to players in big ways, but unless it's illegal, it is not cheating."
Consequently, the NCAA has been extremely cautious about ruling on NIL deals. That's how we got here in the first place: The NCAA was ruled to have illegally capped compensation.
The association has all but lost its antitrust leverage through the years. If it steps one inch over the line, the combatants will be not only be local lawyers but NFL agents who are now allowed to be NIL marketing agents. They have the means -- and won't hesitate -- to file an antitrust lawsuit.
The 9-0 whitewash by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Alston v. NCAA case last year "essentially wiped out the NCAA's antitrust defense, which means the next anti-trust challenge could be the final blow to the remaining rules," said Tim Nevius, a player advocate attorney and former NCAA investigator.
"The NCAA can't pursue these too aggressively without facing more potential legal challenges and liability," he added. "I think blatant violations may be pursued by the NCAA, but well-drafted contracts will be difficult to cite as violations. But if they do investigate, they'll look at the terms of the contract and any conversations in advance of executing the contract in determining if there is a potential recruiting inducement."
Recruiting experts contacted by CBS Sports agreed on that the identity of the five-star prospect who signed the contract could be narrowed down.
Given the amount of money, it is almost certainly a skill player. CBS Sports was told it is not quarterback Arch Manning, the New Orleans-based grandson of Archie Manning and No. 1 overall recruit in the Class of 2023.
The player's identity is less relevant than the fact that a high school junior has signed what's believed to be the largest NIL deal to date. It certainly is the largest known NIL compensation ever given to a high school player.
Coaches continue to freak.
The biggest question now: How high is up when it comes to the next NIL blockbuster?