What can Rutgers do to keep other programs from poaching its best athletes with big-dollar name, image and likeness deals? It is the central question for the athletic department and its biggest boosters in the early days of a wild-west era in college sports.

The answer, at its core, is simple: Raise money. Raise a lot of money, and get that money into the hands of the most talented football and basketball players before another school can. But as anyone who has followed the Scarlet Knights knows, fundraising at a high level is often as daunting a task as measuring up against Ohio State on the gridiron.

Two groups are trying.

One is the universitys athletic department, where meetings on the topic are held each Tuesday in an overflowing conference room, a NIL-focused position is being added to make inroads in the business community, and a new website is weeks away from launching to make it easier for companies match with athletes.

The other is a collective of boosters called Knights of the Raritan, which has signed up more than 500 people from the Rutgers community, set up information tables at home football games to raise awareness for the NIL conundrum, and (so far) has raised about $400,000 with the intention of using that money to keep the best athletes from transferring.

A week and a half ago, I rankled some people at Rutgers when I wrote the university wasnt doing enough to keep up with Ohio State and other Big Ten programs. NIL is widely seen as a game-changer in college sports, and the teams that are most successful navigating these choppy waters are the ones that could have the best chance to hold up trophies at the end of their seasons. If youre not trying, youre not committed to winning.

So I set out to delve deeper into the issue and the challenges, talking to more than a dozen people both on the record and for background who are on the front lines in Piscataway. What is the real problem? What can be done about it?

A familiar theme quickly emerged. Well-intentioned administrators, fundraisers and boosters are pulling in different directors trying to raise money from alumni and corporate donors who, for decades, have been reluctant to open their wallets compared to their counterparts at other Big Ten programs. The result is a great deal of uncertainty about what Rutgers can and is doing and what might happen in the months ahead.

This much seems clear is: The clarion call from football coach Greg Schiano two and a half months ago that Rutgers needed to raise millions before his best young players are poached from the transfer portal in the offseason has largely gone unheeded.

We are a fanbase full of BS excuses, and the excuses are mainly the same ones that have lived in infamy for years they just get repurposed and re-tailored as new things come along, said Jon Newman, a co-founder of Knights of the Raritan. Whats going to happen is, if a lot of money isnt raised over the next two months the football team is going to get raided and people are going to start blaming everybody but themselves.

Inside the NIL push

Patrick Hobbs, the Rutgers athletic director, wants to make sure his fan base understands that his department is not sitting on its hands when it comes to NIL. But those hands, he said, are in many ways tied by NCAA guidance on the issue, a state law set to go into effect in two years and steadfast refusal to cross the line in a way that many other big-time programs have.

I want to do everything that we can to provide NIL opportunities for our student athletes, Hobbs said from his seat at the head of a conference table at the Rodkin Center last week. We move, at times, cautiously because we want to do it the right way, that were in line with the guidance from the NCAA and taking into account state law. Anything we can do to support our student athletes, we want to be doing.

Soon, Rutgers will launch the R Edge Marketplace, a web portal that will enable companies to identify the right athletes for sponsorship opportunities. Jeff Poulard, an assistant compliance director, has become the departments NIL guru and hes available 24/7, he said, to address the many questions that athletes have about potential deals.

Poulard will soon have another employee working with him to reach out to the corporate community and encourage them to seek out athletes for endorsements, events, social media campaigns and anything else that makes sense.


Hobbs sees a day when businesses around Rutgers recognize the benefit of paying athletes to represent their brand, and in turn, Rutgers has allowed those athletes to take advantage of their association with the university in their deals. Just look at Geo Baker, Hobbs said, who gone from stardom on the basketball court to the business world as an NIL entrepreneur.

Rutgers wont, however, step into what Hobbs calls the gray area.

Its been made very clear that (NIL) cant be used for recruiting inducement, and it cant be pay for play, Hobbs said. I think there are some schools out there that are operating in a very gray area right now. Maybe beyond a gray area. Thats up to the NCAA and others to start policing, but were going to do it the right way.

Hobbs wouldnt list the programs he believes that are overstepping, but even the most casual fans have heard or read the stories.

Texas A&M boosters, according to one report, have spent $25 million to secure its latest recruiting class an allegation its coach, Jimbo Fisher, has denied. One CEO with ties to Miami paid $800,000 to a Kansas State basketball player after he transferred to Coral Gables. Google Tennessee and NIL if you need more examples (and have a few hours to kill) of how the new rules are being used in a way that oversteps their intentions.

But when does cautious become too cautious?

No one expects Rutgers to buy blue-chip high school recruits, but some in and around the athletic department see what other universities are doing and not just SEC renegades and privately worry that the Scarlet Knights are taking a too-passive approach at a time when the NCAA has basically punted on enforcement.

Take Illinois, for example. Its athletic director, Josh Whitman, was headliner at a fundraiser for the schools NIL collective, Illini Guardians, where he and basketball coach Brad Underwood and football coach Bret Bielema addressed more than 100 donors. The message: Give now, and give big.

Illinois has an advantage in that a state law allows its athletic department to facilitate NIL deals something currently prohibited in a New Jersey law set to go into effect in 2024. But one of that laws sponsors made it clear to NJ Advance Media that he is willing to change that law if officials and athletes at Rutgers agree that it is hindrance.

The rest of the country has finally caught up to what we were working on for New Jersey student athletes going back to my bill first being introduced, said Sen. Joseph A. Lagana (D-Bergen), who has spoken with Hobbs on the issue in recent days. Im open to looking at how the laws other states are passing impact New Jerseys situation, but only if our students retain control over their own likeness.

Of course, boosters or companies who want to sign athletes to NIL deals dont have to wait for that. They can do it right now, and do it without even contacting the athletic department. And one of the founders of a collective designed to help them wants to know: When will they?

A collective struggle

Knights of the Raritan launched in May to fill a void in Piscataway. KTR could do what Rutgers could not and facilitate deals directly with athletes, allowing fans who wanted to contribute to the NIL effort but lacked the deep pockets to make an impact on their own.

In a short time, collectives have changed the landscape in college sports. They can work as a middleman and do the dirty work that universities are not supposed to engage in direct NIL payments to athletes, strike deals between athletes and businesses, and in some places, essetially run as a defacto payroll department for high-profile teams. (Again: Tennessee.)

The latter, to be clear, is not happening at Rutgers. KTR has deals with basketball players Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy, football players Noah Vedral and Willie Tyler; and worked with the New Brunswick Development Corporation to facilitate deals with eight female athletes to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

There are others, but none of them broke the bank. Still, the collective is proactively entering into deals with some of the most successful athletes in Piscataway, and even with some lower-profile ones who simply need financial support.

We have done deals with kids who need the money to pay the rent, to eat, Newman said. Its not all about these multi-million deals because, quite frankly, we dont have that (level of funding). People think its all a money grab for the student athletes, but its not.

For the first time last week, Newman and several other members of the KTRs executive committee met with Hobbs and other athletic officials. Hobbs, according to three people at the meeting, was effusive in his praise for what the KTR is doing and said he wished Rutgers had a separate collective for each of its two dozen sports.

The athletic director, however, has stopped short of a full-throated endorsement in public.

Collectives can play a role, and theyre trying to and one of the great things about those guys is that theyre trying to do it the right way, Hobbs said when asked if KTR was a necessary part of making NIL successful at Rutgers. Its hard. Theyre learning how hard it is in this environment.

Newman said it was disappointing that KTR hasnt received more institutional support. The group received its biggest bump in membership after Schianos comments in the summer, and viewed it as a missed opportunity that more wasnt done to raise awareness in the weeks that followed.

KTR is working to address concerns among potential donors. It will soon make a corporate membership available, and it has filed for 501(c)(3) status that would allow members to make donations that classify as tax write-offs. The latter, Newman hopes, will prompt some of the universitys bigger donors who are sitting on the sideline to contribute.

The 500 or so members of KTR donate an average of $27 monthly. The collective has landed several five-figure donations but has yet to land one that tops six figures, and Newman didnt hesitate to point out that the $400,000 raised is nowhere near where we need to be and nowhere close to the millions needed just for football.

This, of course, is the heart of the problem. Schiano believes Rutgers must have that money available to hold his team together. The lone collective in Piscataway doesnt have the level of funding, while Hobbs said the athletic department cant engage in a bidding war to keep players. One group lacks the money. One says that would overstep whats allowed.

In the meantime, other programs are expected to pounce. It wont just be the Ohio States of the world, either. Newman is frustrated with the defeatist attitude he hears among some fans, that Rutgers cant compete with the powerhouses so why bother trying.

If you wake up in the morning and you decide that you want to be mediocre and not compete with the big boys, well, then youre going to be mediocre, he said. What I would tell you is, were not going to be able to compete with Minnesota, Illinois and Maryland at this point, and then people are going to scratch their heads and look to blame people. They should look in the mirror.

Hobbs makes the point that not every athlete is looking to squeeze every penny out of his collegiate playing career. The vast majority are students first, and the other reasons they chose Rutgers relationships with a coach, proximity to home, excellent academics, etc. are likely to factor into these decisions even for the select few with a chance to cash in.

If somebody wants to come along and entice someone into a pay-for-play situation at another institution, my hope is that the Rutgers student athletes will see that the real value is staying here and become a legend at Rutgers, Hobbs said. And if you are a legend at Rutgers, youre going to monetize that in multiples of what anyone else can offer.

Its difficult, because our coaches are in a tough position. Do I think theres a chance we could lose a player at some point? There is. That may be because others are not doing it the right way.

Everyone agrees on this: NIL will come up during the recruitment of most Division 1 athletes these days. Rutgers is trying, on two fronts, to meet the demands in this new era of college sports. But if the decision comes down to cold, hard cash?

Right now, that athlete likely will be wearing a different uniform.


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Steve Politi may be reached at [email protected].