STARKVILLE — John Cohen knew the question would be asked.
It’s why the Mississippi State athletic director slotted it as No. 2 on his list of “Frequently Asked Questions” on a PowerPoint he made for Monday’s talk at the Starkville Rotary Club: “How can I help in the NIL space?”
The answer: Quite a bit.
Cohen lambasted the current state of name, image and likeness legislation in college athletics while admitting all MSU can do is try to keep up in what he called a “bidding war” among schools — one in which the Bulldogs don’t have much more ground to give.
“If you’re a Mississippi State fan, you should be concerned,” Cohen said. “We’ve never gotten outmoneyed in the SEC because we’re an equal partner in the Southeastern Conference. We receive the same distribution that everybody else gets. But when it comes down to passing the hat around an alumni base, I’m concerned. Our friends at Alabama or Texas A&M or Florida or Georgia or you name it, their hat’s going to end up being a little bigger than ours, and that’s a concern.”
Cohen said he has already seen bigger programs in some sports leading the arms race. He said he had heard three other SEC baseball programs had more NIL money at their disposal than Mississippi State’s entire athletic department.
And while that might not hurt the Bulldogs yet, it will soon, Cohen promised.
“This isn’t punching us in the face — yet,” he said. “This isn’t going to get us — this year. If we’re not competitive in the space, it’s going to be the next year and the year after that.”
While Cohen expressed his disdain for how NIL has become in ways a pay-for-play scenario for many college athletes, he said all MSU can do for now is play by the rules.
Cohen bluntly requested funding Mississippi State’s NIL collective, The Bulldog Initiative. He even pulled up contact information for attorney Charlie Winfield, the man in charge of the collective, on a PowerPoint slide.
“The bottom line is, our collective needs money,” Cohen said. “It can’t come in $5 at a time, although we’ll never push that aside. Our collectives need money. They do. That’s how we’re going to survive this thing.”
Letting college athletes profit from the use of their name, image and likeness was legalized July 1, 2021, and it has taken off since. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young signed an NIL deal worth more than $800,000 before the 2021 season — before he ever started a game for the Crimson Tide.
NIL money has often been the difference for high school recruits and players in the transfer portal, and that typically benefits bigger schools.
Cohen said he favors a form of NIL but not the current model.
“I will say this: If a student-athlete has success and a student-athlete goes out and wants to earn money on their own based on what they have achieved in their career academically and on the field, and they can go out and get $100,000, $200,000, whatever it is, more power to them,” he said. “But when money is just being handed off to these kids, that doesn’t work. That’s not sustainable, and everybody knows it. But in the short term, this is the world we’re living in.”
An unsustainable model foreshadows a “bad ending” for those involved. If a fair solution for NIL is to be reached, he said, it won’t come at a national level but rather region by region or conference by conference.
But with the NCAA, local and state authorities; and conferences and their member schools afraid of being sued, Cohen thinks that might be tough.
“We’re at a critical juncture where some entity who’s not afraid of litigation will step forward and say, ‘Here’s the opportunity,’” Cohen said. “‘Here’s what needs to be done. Here’s the level playing field.’”
Until that does happen, programs like Mississippi State will continue to face NIL disadvantage.
But Cohen made it clear the Bulldogs aren’t giving up.
“Now, if you’re sitting in my chair, you can throw your arms up in the air and you can say, ‘Woe is me, we quit,’” Cohen said. “Anybody who knows John Cohen knows that ain’t happening. What’s going to happen is we’re going to get aggressive in this space.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.