OU football: How NIL is keeping Sooners in school

OU football: How NIL is keeping Sooners in school

Ten years ago, 135 underclassmen declared for the NFL Draft. That number was 54 this season. And the Name, Image, Likeness revolution clearly is the reason why.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Mar 14, 2024, 6:00am CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Mar 14, 2024, 6:00am CDT

NORMAN — Reggie Pearson ran a 4.67 40-yard dash, bench-pressed 225 pounds 21 times without pause, broad-jumped 9½ feet and vertical-leaped 32½ inches Tuesday.

Not great numbers for a safety seeking to get drafted in the NFL Draft, but better than some that were posted among the 20 safeties at the NFL Combine a couple of weeks ago.

Pearson wishes he had done better. He also wishes he hadn’t had to go through OU Pro Day at all.

Pearson would prefer another year of college football.

“It’s crazy,” said Pearson, who transferred to OU a year ago from Texas Tech, where he had played two years after transferring from Wisconsin. “I was trying to get another year because I sat out a year and a half between Wisconsin and Texas Tech.”

Pearson played four full seasons of college football, none of them the pandemic year of 2020, so he didn’t have much of a case for an extra year of eligibility. But he sure would have liked another season.

And he is not alone.

Ten Sooners went through OU Pro Day, plus offensive linemen Tyler Guyton, who skipped most of the drills, since he performed for scouts at the NFL Combine, as did Sooner center Andrew Raym. Of those 12, only Raym and Guyton had eligibility remaining.

And that’s a trend seen across America. Fewer and fewer football players are turning pro early. What once was a fast-growing practice has slowed substantially.

Ten years ago, 135 underclassmen declared for the NFL Draft. That number was 54 this season.

And the name, image, likeness revolution is the reason why. In 2021, 130 underclassmen declared for the draft. 2021 was the year the Supreme Court opened the NIL gates, allowing college athletes to market themselves and receive payment unregulated by the NCAA.

In other words, athletes are getting paid, and it’s making them stay in school.

“I think it’s NIL,” said defensive end Rondell Bothroyd, who is out of eligibility after five years at Wake Forest and one at OU.

There are other reasons, of course. This season, primarily, the Sooners’ move to the Southeastern Conference. Some players want the challenge.

“Kids here definitely want to compete in the SEC,” Bothroyd said. “So guys like Danny (Stutsman) and Billy (Bowman Junior), they definitely want to stay and compete. But I think NIL’s a big part of it. Kind of guaranteed money, rather than going and trying to make their team in the NFL, and be without a job after that.”

That’s the key. For decades, starving artists had nothing on college athletes, who were expected to compete and/or train year-round but long were prohibited from having school-year jobs. And marketing themselves — commercials, for instance, in the old days; social media gigs in the modern age — was a no-no.

The Supreme Court changed that, changing the financial structure of college football and giving players more incentive to stick around.

“I understand why some guys would come back,” Pearson said. “You want that stability; financial stability and things like that.

“Some guys come back because they don’t feel like they’re (NFL) ready. Even for an old guy like me, I tried to get another year. When I talked to people about it, it was like, when is it the right time for me?

“A lot of guys have that fear that you go to rookie camp and it might not go so well. Then you’re out of a job and you have no financial stability. A lot of guys come back because of that.”

OU’s 2024 defensive potential certainly rose when Stutsman and Bowman decided to return. Both were all-Big 12 in 2023.

Billy Bowman Senior was at the Everest Center for Pro Day. He offered insight into his son’s decision and others’ decision to return for another year of college.

“I think it depends on different athletes, different goals, different situations,” Bowman Senior said. “Some understand that the NFL’s not going anywhere. No point to leave.”

In Bowman Junior’s case, he’s engaged to OU softball star Jayda Coleman and he graduates in December. Much easier to get your degree now than to try to come back later.

And now NIL makes it no financial sacrifice to stay in school unless a player is projected as an early pick.

Guyton, for example, is being billed as a late first-round or early second-round pick. Those contracts trump the money available in NIL, so the best players likely still will turn pro.

But players like Raym, who is projected as roughly a sixth-round pick, are less likely to turn pro, with NIL available. Raym seemed to be discontent as the Sooner season progressed, and he skipped the Alamo Bowl.

Raym was unavailable for comment on Tuesday. But it seems clear he’s the exception in these times.

Turning pro no longer is the popular thing to do for marginal draft picks.

The data shows that early-entry numbers were mostly level from 2004-2010, then steadily rose for the next 10 years.

But the Supreme Court changed that. NIL gives players financial reasons to stay in school. And many are. Which makes college football better.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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