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USC's administration doesn't want a collective. Boosters are starting one anyway

The tension of the NIL era arrives at USC's doorstep: How best to funnel money to your athletes?

In October of 2020, USC launched The BLVD. Though today's NIL rules weren't in place at the time, it was obvious the school was positioning itself for the new age to come with a 3-minute video of players and coaches making a red carpet debut that I described at the time as "Hollywood as hell.

(In perhaps a sign of things to come, USC later took that video down and apologized for put out aspirational vibes during a pandemic.)

Anyway, USC eventually folded BLVD -- Justin Timberlake's Sean Parker to USC: "Drop the The. It's cleaner." -- into an in-house NIL agency that, according to USC, is the best in the business. 

“We feel really good about the way we’re aligned, associated with BLVD, and we’re looking forward to a successful agency that’s going to be compliant with NCAA rules,” USC AD Mike Bohn told the Los Angeles Times. The school says it plans to raise $75 million over five years to support Trojan athletes. 

But not everyone within Trojan Nation is aligned in BLVD as a cutting-edge NIL strategy setting USC up for future success.

As the LA Times details, USC boosters have started their own collective, called Student Body Right, against the school's wishes.

Headed by Dale Rech, a USC booster who grew disillusioned with the program's lack of success in the years that followed, Student Body Right established itself as a 501(c)(3). Like many collectives, it will attempt to provide Trojan athletes, but primarily Trojan football players, with something akin to a salary in exchange for making charity appearances. This approach has become common in the NIL era. This week, even SMU announced plans to pay football and men's basketball players $36,000 per year to represent the program. Their group's name? Boulevard Collective

Rech and his likeminded donors were pitched on joining BLVD, but walked away from the effort after USC explained 50 percent of their donations would go to their Trojan of choice and the other 50 would be spent at the BLVD's discretion. 

Though he wouldn't acknowledge them by name, Bohn was clearly nervous about a third-party organization running afoul of NCAA rules. “USC is not aware of a formal donor-created NIL collective. We ask any donors who would like to support USC’s athletes through NIL to please work with BLVD so that all activities are conducted in compliance with state laws and NCAA rules," he told the Times.

There is currently zero evidence the NCAA will effectively crack down on third-party collectives, though experts have no idea if 501(c)(3) collectives would survive IRS scrutiny, if it ever comes to that. 

Still, Student Body Right feels good about where it stands and has no plans to shut down. It's not aligned against BLVD, per se, but Student Body Right believes its approach will best serve USC's needs. “This is a standalone collective, with no affiliation or ties to the university,” Rech told the Times. “The NCAA cannot go back at the university as long as we’re in compliance and stay within what the guidelines of the NCAA and state require. There’s no blowback from us on the university. They just want control.”

Meanwhile, this drama unfolds as Malachi Nelson, a 5-star quarterback rated as the No. 2 player in the class of 2023, took a visit to Texas A&M over the weekend. 

Nelson committed to USC on Nov. 30, 2021, two days after Riley took the job. He originally committed to play for Riley at Oklahoma on July 18, 2021. Perhaps Nelson truly is considering leaving Los Alamitos, Calif., for College Station, Texas. Or perhaps he's simply trying to get USC's -- and its donors' -- attention. 

Caught in the middle of all this is Lincoln Riley. Do you tell your rich, disillusioned fans to back off, and risk alienating them and the money they want to pay your future players? Or do you tell your boss to cool it and let the rogue group go rouge?  

At Pac-12 media days last month, he toed both lines. “If this world becomes a collective world, our supporters here will support our guys as much as anyone in the country. If it doesn’t become a collective world, who has a better setup than this? However these rules evolve, we’re positioned."

Update: USC says it has no history of donations from the founder of Student Body Right. "We would be very wary of anyone launching a NIL initiative who has no known connection to the athletics program and no proven track record of supporting our student-athletes," the school said.

The plot thickens...