Spencer Rattler remains the hottest commodity in college football. The same can't be said of the Oklahoma quarterback while he is actually playing college football.
That's a proper summary of the name, image and likeness crossroads that Oklahoma, the NCAA and Rattler face with the Sooners quarterback job up for grabs this week. Rattler is the most marketable player in the sport, based to his social media status, despite being pulled from the Texas game for the second straight year and having his QB1 status put in question.
As one of the most-celebrated and best-compensated players in the early days of NIL, this turn of events raised an inevitable question: What relationship is there between play on the field and NIL earning power? At least in the early days of NIL, the answer: not much.
"This is an interesting story," said Blake Lawrence, CEO of technology-based social media giant Opendorse. "Spencer Rattler is the most marketable college football player. There is no doubt. The fact that this is a story tells you how marketable he is."
That story now includes Rattler possibly (likely?) losing his starting job to freshman Caleb Williams. Rattler was replaced by Williams after Oklahoma had fallen 18 points back of Texas in the second quarter of an eventual 55-48 win. Williams was hailed as the savior by fans while Rattler was questioned again two weeks after being booed at home by the OU student section, which favored Williams.
Rattler remains one of the highest-paid athletes of the short-lived NIL era. Opendorse projects his social media earning power alone as nearly $800,000 this year. His NIL marketing is being handled by Chris Cabott, a high-profile NFL agent with mega-agency Steinberg Sports in Southern California. Cabott counts Patrick Mahomes among his highest-profile clients.
Rattler has also been given two vehicles by Fowler Automotive Group, one of the largest car dealers in the Oklahoma City, Oklahoma area. He will keep those cars despite the widely held belief Williams will start Saturday's game against TCU. Coach Lincoln Riley would not name a starter on Tuesday and even closed down media access to the program after the OU Daily student newspaper observed Williams taking the majority of reps with the first team in practice.
"Whether [Rattler] starts or doesn't start, the truth is we didn't go into the partnership just for a return on investment," said Jonathan Fowler, president of Fowler Automotive, a third-generation car dealer in the region. "I hate that he's having to go through this type of scrutiny as a student-athlete, but I certainly understand. I assume he does, too."
Even before NIL rights became reality on July 1, it was becoming obvious that athletic performances do not necessarily matter. An energy bar company covered the scholarships of BYU walk-ons. A walk-on receiver at Nebraska last year would have been the fifth-highest compensated player on the roster (had NIL been in place) because he was merely rumored to be dating Nickelodeon/Instagram star JoJo.
UCLA backup QB Chase Griffin has received more NIL opportunities than starter Dorian Thompson-Robinson, according Lawrence. Miami QB D'Eriq King has several deals, including a partnership with Florida State QB McKenzie Milton to book player appearances. King is out for the year with a shoulder injury. Milton has been in and out of the lineup.
"Simply having the title of starting quarterback at any collegiate institution is going to help in getting opportunity," Lawrence said. "It's not necessary [to start]. People don't unfollow an individual because of their on field performance. It's not significant."
Williams' Instagram account has grown 40% since Friday to 54,800 followers, Lawrence added. Rattler added only 80 followers in the same timeframe, but his account is at 390,400.
Rattler's NIL deals will roll on. He also has a deal with Raisin' Canes, a fast-food chicken restaurant. His cars from Fowler are valued at $70,325 (2021 Dodge Ram 1500 TRX) and $43,450 (Dodge Charger Scat Pack). It's not clear whether these cars were given to Rattler in perpetuity, or they are on a lease deal.
"At the end of the day, it is a form of free advertising," Fowler said. "My company hasn't done anything wrong, Spencer hasn't done anything wrong. There will be people know that know our company."
Rattler, then, becomes an early case study in NIL return on investment. He went from preseason Heisman Trophy favorite and potential No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft to perhaps the bench in coming days. Riley deftly handled questions from the media Tuesday saying both players were on board.
The coach praised Rattler's only second-half play when he succeeded on a two-point conversion to tie the game at 41.
"The intestinal fortitude that it took to go back in that game the other day … it's hard to explain," Riley said. "As a coach, you don't put a guy in there if you worry, 'He's selfish.' … That was the most important single play of the game. What he's going through is not easy. If we've seen his worst, we're going to be OK."
Neither player spoke after the game, nor are they expected to this week. Riley has a policy that freshmen cannot speak to the media. That included an attempted on-field interview of Williams by ESPN, the cable rightsholder that pays the Big 12 millions of dollars to televise its games. Lawrence said that sort of restriction is bound to become a recruiting issue in the future in this NIL age.
"Competing schools might clearly say in the recruiting process, 'Hey, we will give you a platform to speak,'" he said.
In one sense, NIL has become the NCAA's worst nightmare. What Fowler is essentially saying is the car deal is in itself a recruiting pitch for the next great Oklahoma quarterback. Alabama coach Nick Saban has done as much with QB Bryce Young.
Maybe it goes against every old NCAA recruiting rule, but the competitive balance of the game hasn't changed. Alabama and Oklahoma continue to be national powers. Cincinnati is becoming one. Bearcats QB Desmond Ridder has his own car deal and is represented by VaynerSports, another powerful NFL agency.
Let the speculation begin whether Rattler will transfer. It's what star quarterbacks do these days when they're not starting. The implications are huge. There are no scholarship quarterbacks at OU behind Williams and Rattler. Riley continues to be in the mix for some of the top quarterback recruits in future years.
"Everybody wants to talk about these giant recruiting ramifications and, 'Oh my God, if we lose and if we win it's so amazing,'" Riley said. "… If that was the pinnacle of our season to beat Texas … I wouldn't be here right now. I'd be on vacation."
The situation has the look of 2018 when Jalen Hurts stayed at Alabama despite losing the job to Tua Tagovailoa. That worked out best for everyone. Tagovailoa became a top draft choice. So did Hurts after a graduate transfer year at Oklahoma in 2019 when he finished second in Heisman voting behind LSU QB Joe Burrow.
That year, Rattler was Hurts' freshman teammate.
"Joe Burrow had a devastating injury last year [with the Bengals]," Lawrence said. "He didn't play a game, but his marketability stayed as it was. Dak Prescott was very similar. When professional quarterbacks hit the bench, it decreases their likelihood to get future opportunities. But their current sponsors don't leave them."
Riley might as well have been speaking to his quarterback Tuesday when he was asked about a possible transfer for Rattler.
"What is the advantage of leaving midseason?" Riley said. "If you want to leave and go search for an opportunity, that's fine. But you're going to leave and go nowhere [in the middle of the season]. You can't practice football on your own. Here you can sharpen your skills, and if opportunity presents itself, [then you can take it]."
Rattler is more or less boxed in at Oklahoma. As a third-year player who supposedly wants to get to the NFL as soon as possible, he'd be cutting short his final year of eligibility with a transfer.
"If I'm looking at a guy who is a potential transfer and that guy quit on his team," Riley said, "unless there is an extenuating circumstance, I have a hard time taking him [in the NFL]."