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Harvard offers a lot to star guard Malik Mack. Except big NIL money.

Harvard offers a lot to star guard Malik Mack. Except big NIL money.

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

It’s always been hard for Malik Mack to hide on a basketball court. Yet after making a pass in early March, in Harvard’s season finale at Dartmouth, the point guard cut through the key and faded to the opposite corner. The defense scrambled to stop Harvard’s fast break. Twenty shoes squeaked inside the quiet gym. Alone, the 6-foot-1 Mack stood in front of his team’s bench, waiting for the ball to swing back his way. And when it did, he caught, rose and shot in a fluid motion, his left hand flicking a three through the net.

It was the final bucket of Mack’s freshman year. But will it be his last at Harvard, too?

BACK ON JAN. 20, before Harvard faced Penn in Philadelphia, an NBA scout stopped by press row and asked: “Are you here to figure out if Malik Mack will transfer? I mean, do you take $250,000 to go play somewhere else, or do you stay for the Harvard degree?”

That number, what Mack could earn from a name, image and likeness (NIL) collective at a school outside the Ivy League, was a semi-educated guess. The questions surrounding Mack — a very talented 19-year-old from Oxon Hill, Md. — run the full range from practical to philosophical: Should he leave behind one of the best educations on the planet, and should Harvard and the Ivy League care that, unless they embrace NIL like the rest of the country, their top players will face a lucrative crossroads every spring?

If you’re into the collision of higher education and the big, big business of college sports, Mack is the ultimate bar debate. Some key facts: When the regular season ended last week, Mack, Harvard’s best player, ranked fourth in the Ivy League in scoring (17.2 points per game) and first in assists (4.8). But to date, he has not earned a penny of NIL money, according to his father, while many of his peers in other conferences are cashing in. That’s partly because Harvard does not have an NIL collective, a donor-funded group that pays de facto salaries to in-demand football and men’s basketball players. None of the eight Ivy League schools do, making the conference an extreme outlier.

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There is no Ivy League rule prohibiting collectives, according to three people with direct knowledge of the conference’s NIL regulations. But this is the league that doesn’t allow graduate students to play or give out athletic scholarships. As one assistant coach put it: “Imagine the rosters if the Harvard grads or the Penn grads pooled their money together. But will it happen? It’s still the Ivy League.”

Last spring, Jordan Dingle, the conference’s player of the year, transferred from Penn to St. John’s, where Coach Rick Pitino could promise both money and more exposure to pro scouts in the Big East. And this year, Yale center Danny Wolf, Princeton guard Xaivian Lee and Penn guard Tyler Perkins could be in a similar spot as Mack, if they want to see what’s out there.

Mack and his family maintain that, in a perfect world, he would stay at Harvard, build something with Coach Tommy Amaker, earn an elite degree and tap into the alumni network. But because he has yet to earn money in college, and because his family is paying part of his tuition, they plan to weigh Harvard against other opportunities. On Saturday, the Ivy League men’s basketball tournament will begin without the Crimson, which finished 5-9 in conference play. The transfer portal opens at the start of next week.

“I really just try to stay focused on what I got going on here,” Mack said last month on a video call with his dad (Omar), his mom (Chantell) and one of his older brothers (Xavier). “I feel like the NIL stuff will handle itself.”

“We’ve never had a lot,” Omar said. “So we don’t require a lot.”

“I guess you could say you can’t miss what you don’t have,” Chantell said with a laugh. “That’s what I feel like.”

“Are you thinking shortsighted, or are you thinking long-term?” Xavier asked.

“That’s not to say we don’t want those things for him and we don’t feel like he deserves them, because we do,” Omar said of NIL money. “And I think if any place, any school in the world understands business, it’s Harvard.”

“OMAR, LET ME TELL YOU, Malik has been great in the classroom,” said Patrick O’Connor, then an assistant at St. John’s College High in Washington. “Teachers keep coming up to me …”

A preseason parents’ meeting had just finished. Mack had made varsity as a freshman.

“ ‘Let me stop you right there, Coach,’ ” O’Connor remembered Omar saying. With their older boys, Omar and Chantell felt they hovered a bit, same as any new parents. But with their youngest, they stepped back.

When Mack was 4, he got the nickname “Spiderman” for scaling the bleachers while Omar coached his brothers. When Mack started hooping, he would wake up on his own to shoot in the driveway, sometimes in the rain without shoes. When he discovered chess, he became one of the best players at his elementary school. Omar and Chantell can’t recall ever asking him to do his homework.

“You will never have to worry about Malik in the classroom,” Omar told O’Connor that day. The Macks had a motto in their house: It’s cool to be smart.

HARVARD OFFICIALS DO NOT LIKE TALKING about NIL. Neither do officials from the Ivy League. When asked if Athletic Director Erin McDermott would discuss the school’s approach to NIL, a Harvard spokesman referred The Washington Post to the conference. But despite multiple attempts, an Ivy League spokesman could not be reached. The Harvard spokesman ultimately didn’t make McDermott available. Amaker, Harvard’s 58-year-old coach, the man credited with lifting the whole profile of Ivy League basketball by taking the job in 2007, declined to be interviewed.

The legal climate has made the conference hesitant to speak publicly about NIL, according to two people with knowledge of its inner workings. Beyond the many active antitrust cases against the NCAA, the Dartmouth’s men’s basketball team recently voted to unionize — despite the school’s repeated objections — and a federal antitrust suit in Connecticut is challenging the Ivy League’s ban on athletic scholarships.

Collectives, it should be noted, are not run by schools. They typically raise money from fans and regular donors, then compensate athletes through paid charity work and appearances. But while schools are not in charge, they can promote and partner with collectives — and it would be naive to think coaches aren’t communicating with boosters about recruits. An accountant or lawyer isn’t deciding which transfer guard should receive a six-figure offer. And after a court decision in Tennessee this month, collectives are temporarily allowed to negotiate and even sign contracts with recruits before they enroll.

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Ivy League athletes can be compensated through NIL brand deals, such as promotion of a company on social media for cash or free product. But as long as collectives have a heavy influence in recruiting, the eight schools will have to worry about the transfer portal like never before. Education has always been the sell. It just didn’t have to compete with so much over-the-table money.

LONG BEFORE HE CHOSE HARVARD, Mack kept asking himself one question as a middle schooler: Why me? It felt like his coaches, Howard Blue and J.B. Gerald, put more on him than any other kid. He had to be the best in his class. He had to teach his teammates the plays. He had to break down film and know where everyone should be on the court, all the time, no excuses.

“They made me compete at everything because they saw how special I was,” Mack said. They had run the strategy by his parents first. Omar and Chantell signed off.

To even work out with Blue, players had to complete a grueling fitness test. One burpee, two V-ups, three pushups. Then two burpees, four V-ups and six pushups, all the way up to 10, 20 and 30, then back down to one, two and three. Many kids would fail and never come back. Mack, however, mastered the drill and would do it almost daily, meeting Blue at 6:30 a.m. When the coaches tried to break him, he only leveled up.

RICHARD KENT HAS WATCHED more Ivy League basketball than doctors would recommend. He does color commentary for Yale men’s games and runs a website that extensively covers the conference. He’s an expert, full stop, and in recent years he began advising and launching collectives as an NIL attorney.

None in the Ivy League, of course, but it’s made Kent curious about the conference’s NIL culture. To him, the absence of collectives is much more about how alumni feel about paying players than how school or league leaders feel. That doesn’t mean those leaders — namely school presidents and athletic directors — are pushing for collectives. It’s just that when Kent helped start Penn State’s first collective, they didn’t ask the football coach, AD or university president for permission. They found a donor, who attracted some other donors, who brought on some more. And then they were off.

“Most alumni I’ve talked to about this want there to be a quid pro quo,” said Kent, adding that if schools or the conference were prohibiting collectives behind the scenes, that could be an antitrust violation that leads to another lawsuit. “Like if a basketball player goes to a car dealership [for a marketing appearance] and gets $500, that’s fine. But if he gets $20,000 from it through a collective partnership? That’s a no-go for these people.”

Last May, there seemed to be a short-lived effort to start an NIL collective for Harvard athletics. The school acknowledged it in a letter to supporters, saying in part: “Recently, some of you may have received communication from a group soliciting Harvard donors and/or alumni for funds to start a NIL collective for Harvard student-athletes. Harvard Athletics has not directly or indirectly sanctioned or supported this group.”

But other than that, there was no information. The school didn’t bite on a question about what happened next. Attempts to find the would-have-been collective’s leaders were not successful.

Glenn Fine, a Harvard co-captain in the late 1970s, then a 10th-round draft pick of the San Antonio Spurs, was the acting inspector general for the Defense Department under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Prashanth “PK” Kumar, a medical student at Columbia, graduated from Harvard in 2021 and is a rabid Crimson basketball fan. Their thoughts on NIL — and NIL collectives — show how Harvard’s culture stretches across generations.

Fine: “When you go to Harvard and play sports, it’s not a one-year decision. It’s not even a four-year decision. It’s a decision for life, and Harvard prepares you for life after basketball and after college. I think that’s what their priority should be. I’m supportive of the way the Ivy League and Harvard treat their athletes, unlike some other universities where college athletics have become much more professionalized.”

Kumar: “If the best players might always leave because of NIL, it definitely bums you out. It’s impossible for it not to. But rooting for the Ivy League, going to one of the schools, you have to be comfortable with those choices. Because they’re students first, the athletes aren’t bound to keep playing to stay on campus. That makes it easier to support despite the constant possibility of transfers now. Or at least that’s how I balance it in my head.”

IT DIDN’T MATTER WHETHER Mack scored two points or in double figures. If Amaker was in the stands — and he often was for Mack’s AAU games — they would talk more about an extra pass or good help defense afterward. Team Takeover, a loaded program, had many top recruits and only one ball. At times, it made Mack feel like a minnow in the ocean, like he might have to find a new team to attract high-major schools. But Amaker didn’t have to see him score or run an offense every game.

“A lot of recruiting, I believe, is lazy now,” Omar said. “… They go by popularity. They don’t really shake the bushes or the trees or however the saying goes. I told Malik not to ever lose confidence. A real coach, a real coach who knows basketball and knows what he’s talking about, he’ll see what he wants. He’ll see, ‘This is my guy.’

“… To Coach Amaker’s credit, that’s exactly what he did. And Amaker, I will say this, he has even seen things in Malik that I don’t think we saw.”

Amaker told Omar that Mack could be an elite shooter, not just a good one. Throughout the season, Omar watched his son miss five straight shots, then still have an isolation play called for him. With most players, Harvard’s pitch — its best chance to beat an NIL collective on the open market — is education and access to its alumni network. With Mack, though, Amaker may be the most important part.

For a while — maybe still — Amaker had a letter from Mike Krzyzewski, his coach at Duke, framed on his office wall. Part of it read that the “relationship between a point guard and his coach is one of the most special relationships in all of sports. My relationship with you is still the best that any coach could ever have.”

“It was just like, ‘Okay, he believes in my game, so maybe I don’t need the big schools. I don’t need the big looks,’ ” Mack said of Amaker. “That’s how I felt. I fell in love with Harvard basketball and how he lets his guards play.”

Amaker has a Breakfast Club that introduces his players to prominent people, including former athletes, politicians, authors and civil rights activists. The discussions tend to focus on social justice and how to increase equity. Obama spoke at a meeting in 2022. Last week, the morning after Harvard’s season ended, former NBA star Chris Webber was a guest.

But is all of this enough to keep Mack in Cambridge? Harvard’s 40-year plan, a common phrase among alumni, is intuitive: Graduate with a degree and reap the benefits for decades. But modern college basketball offers earning potential in prime years, a way for athletes to hedge against the chance of never sticking in the pros.

Mack does dream of playing in the NBA. Scouts found him this year, but might he want to make NIL money from a collective while testing himself against tougher competition? Or how about Georgetown, a hometown school with an NIL collective, strong academics and a network to match, especially in D.C.? Mack, in theory, could enter the transfer portal, speak with other teams and still decide returning is best for him. Considering the possibilities, Omar said “we won’t sell our soul for a bag of silver right now.”

“The package, for us, has to be something really substantial to waver him to leave Harvard,” he continued. “And again, it’s about Malik. It’s what he wants. Me and his mom, we’re just here to advise and support. That’s it.”

Left unknown is what happens if that bag of silver turns to gold.

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