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To cheat or not to cheat

When it comes to NIL and Play-for-Pay, Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops is taking the high moral road (Dr. Michael Huang photo).

In the current topsy-turvy landscape of college athletics, elite recruits still prefer that bird in the hand. Despite the NIL era—for many coaches—a wad of cash up front remains the best way to entice someone to attend your school. With all the pay-for-play schemes, shady collectives, and subtle promises pulling star athletes in every direction, it’s understandable how the line between fair play and cheating is now more nebulous than ever.

In a phone appearance last week on Kentucky Sports Radio, Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops re-emphasized that he and his staff wish to stay squarely on the side of fair play when it comes to recruiting. Stoops implied that other schools are outright cheating by promising players NIL money to sign on the dotted line. He suggested Kentucky fight fire with fire by asking Big Blue donors to pony up in a different sort of way.

Although you can’t legally promise potential recruits to come to your school with NIL money up front, you can contribute money to a pool that UK can distribute to players at a later date once they arrive. Stoops referred—in several instances—to this pool of money as “pre-funded endorsement marketing dollars.”

“We don’t call it a collective because [at] the University of Kentucky, we believe that word is illegal, to pay players to come there right out of high school,” Stoops explained. “I’ve always had a belief that players are going to earn it here. I’ve said that from the beginning. We’re going to earn it, we’re not going to give it away.”

I like my football coach taking the high moral ground. I’m just not sure this pre-funded endorsement route is the best way to proceed. The problem with this belief system is that too many players today want it before they earn it. Why would a star athlete choose to attend school X for an unspecified future amount of money when school Y is guaranteeing him a huge chunk of change even before he steps on campus?

Even more daunting is the challenge of convincing rich UK boosters or local businesses to donate to a fund pool that has yet to be specifically earmarked. Donors want to see exactly where their hard-earned money is going—either overtly to a tangible entity like a new state-of-the-art practice facility or directly into the pockets of someone they’re well familiar with (like Will Levis).

When push comes to shove, however, there’s only so much money in the kitty. Boosters and businesses are already being tasked to contribute to the Blue White fund, the new tennis facility, Dance Blue, etc. Will they be willing to shell out additional dollars for something so unproven?

This “pre-funded endorsement marketing” fund will be a hard sell regardless of how much Stoops or John Calipari or Mitch Barnhart get behind it. Business owners want an adequate return on their investment dollars. They’re not going to line the pockets of future recruits until they’ve seen them scoring touchdowns at Kroger Field.

What should Stoops and Kentucky do then?

Many would say they should cheat. After all, one man’s collective is another man’s pre-funded endorsement marketing pool. It’s all a matter of semantics. The goal is to do whatever you can to convince the best players to play for your school. If everybody else is sweetening the pot, you better do your darndest to keep up. It’s the old speed limit analogy. Everybody drives 75 miles per hour in a 70 mile-per-hour zone. The police can’t write speeding tickets for everyone.

The cynic would also say that this type of under-the-table recruiting has been going on for decades. In the current NIL era, pay-for-play is no different than a twenty-dollar handshake on steroids. There’s no need to turn a blind eye, disguise it as something innocuous, or regard it as a pox on moral turpitude. It’s simply a part of the ugly underbelly of a cutthroat recruiting world. The Wild Wild West became reality when the decision was made to pay student-athletes.

“You better not get left behind,” warned the pundits in the peanut gallery.

I disagree. Kentucky doesn’t need to cheat. Stoops and crew have built a foundation solid enough to withstand the scrutiny and uncertainty of this dynamic new era. The school’s current NIL approach is more than sound. Let other schools push the boundaries for now. Protect the legacy of your program. Why put it at risk? If the rules change later on, Kentucky can be sure to adapt as needed.

Meanwhile, if and when the hammer does fall on schools that are blatantly cheating, you can thank Mark Stoops and Mitch Barnhart for their diligence, prudence, and caution.

Earned, not given. Let’s just hope there’s enough money to fill the NIL pot.

Dr. John Huang is a UK columnist for Nolan Group Media and editor-in-chief of He also covers the NFL and MLB for Sports View America. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs. If you enjoy his writing, be sure to check out his new book, KENTUCKY PASSION.

Dr. John Huang
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist and military veteran. As a lifelong Wildcat fan, a fledgling author, and an occasional guest host of Just the Cats Radio, he's now living out his dream as a UK Sports columnist. Dr. Huang also covers professional sports on a regional level. You can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs or contact him If you enjoy his writing, you can also read more at

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