Clemson Football policies on NIL could cost them David Sanders

Dabo Swinney has been specific that Clemson Football uses NIL for retention, not acquisition. That policy might cost them a very talented recruit who could be exactly what Clemson wants (and needs) in every other respect. It's time to bend the rules.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney talks with participants during the 2024 Dabo Swinney Football Camp in Clemson in Clemson, S.C. Tuesday, June 4, 2024.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney talks with participants during the 2024 Dabo Swinney Football Camp in Clemson in Clemson, S.C. Tuesday, June 4, 2024. / Ken Ruinard - staff / USA TODAY NETWORK

Clemson Football’s policies on NIL have evolved in the few short years since it was allowed by the NCAA.

One aspect that has not changed is that head coach Dabo Swinney does not want NIL to be the leading part of a pitch to recruits. This applies to both high school prospects and transfers.

Swinney does not want the relationship between the player and the program to be of a ‘transactional nature’. He feels that when players select Clemson for reasons beyond NIL they are more likely to stay.

This has been validated by a retention rate that is higher than most peer programs, especially among starting players.

While Clemson has struggled to attract the players they want from the transfer portal, their NIL policy hasn’t held them back in high school recruiting. They continue to attract blue-chip talent, but the new world created by NIL is still evolving. One example from the Class of 2025 could be a sign of things to come for Clemson that could make recruiting top-tier talent more difficult.

David Sanders is the No. 2 overall player in the 247Sports Composite regardless of position. He would be a huge recruiting win for new offensive line coach Matt Luke and the Clemson Tigers. He admires Clemson’s program, and for a brief time following his visit to campus in January, the Tigers were cited as a favorite.

That optimism did not last as Sanders began visiting other programs, specifically Tennessee. What changed?

If you read what Sanders has put out there publicly, it looks like Clemson checks all the boxes, except one.

"For sure that’s a big deal. I feel like you need to live your now, and if you’re a top-rated guy in your class, then you deserve to get what you can get. You deserve to get it then, and then you can get it in the NFL as well. But I feel like development is going to play a big piece of your decision. You don’t want to go somewhere where all they’re offering for you is money, rather than someplace where their offer will come with the development piece where you know you go there do your thing and get to the next level."

David Sanders

That kind of quote from Sanders once gave hope to Clemson fans that he might buy into the value of a program that has a mission to do more than just win football games. As time has gone by, this quote highlights the problem: Sanders believes there is more to his recruitment than NIL, but NIL is still important. Sanders doesn't believe that a man of his talents should dismiss NIL as a secondary consideration that can be addressed after he makes his college choice.

There are still a lot of college football fans who think that a player who is looking for upfront NIL is a gold-digger. There are still a lot of Clemson fans who think players looking for NIL aren’t a good fit for the Tigers' program. Both statements are fair and likely have applied accurately to many players over the past few years.

The tangle for Swinney and the Tigers is that David Sanders represents an example of a young man who is exactly what Clemson is looking for in almost every way except one: he is knowledgeable about his worth as a player and he isn’t willing to overlook it just because he likes every other characteristic of a coach and/or program.

Sanders acknowledges development is important and it matters to him. That is probably why Clemson became his favorite after the Elite Retreat. Swinney and his staff have always been masters at selling recruits on how they can develop them as men above and beyond developing them as football players.

Observers have noted that Clemson makes a case that once a player enrolls with Clemson the NIL does come. They simply won’t make any guarantees. That is good enough for some, but for a young man like Sanders, there is no reason to leave such things to chance.

Sanders likely pointed his compass elsewhere when he realized that Clemson isn’t the only place where he can develop and some of those places are willing to negotiate NIL upfront and provide him with more than an assurance that 'NIL will come later'.

Sanders is an example of the kind of man Clemson usually wants. More bluntly, Sanders is an example of the kind of player Clemson very much needs if they want to turn the offensive line into a strength. There will be more examples of men/players like Sanders as time goes on.

Swinney has created the ‘retention, not acquisition’ policy to safeguard his program from potential problems, but the world of NIL continues to evolve. Young prospects will become more knowledgeable about their value and what is fair for them to expect during recruitment.

If Clemson Football is unwilling to evolve its policy on NIL, it will continue to miss out on people like Sanders whose only ‘flaw’ is that he is educated and mature about his value in the NIL marketplace and isn’t willing to make it an afterthought.

If there was ever a time to make an exception to the 'retention, not acquisition' safeguard, it is now. If the House settlement is successfully implemented as it was drawn up, players will have an NIL valuation to determine fair market value.

This was included to make sure that schools are not paying exorbitant amounts to lure players. In other words, it will set a ceiling for a player's NIL value. There are already organizations and companies who are stepping forward to create these valuations.

While this valuation will set a ceiling and protect against overpaying prospects, it will also serve to define the fair and proper value a prospect is worth. This will presumably include prospects both from high school and the portal.

If this valuation system is successfully implemented (without legal challenges), Clemson will have little choice than to acknowledge the NIL worth of an incoming prospect. The difference between 'guaranteed NIL' and 'defined NIL for a prospect acting as an independent contractor' is razor thin.

It doesn't make much sense to let David Sanders walk over an expectation of defined NIL when everyone will have defined NIL within a year or two.

The risk with making an exception with Sanders is minimal. It is time for Swinney and Clemson to relax the acquisition rule and find a way to check that last box.