For months now, the alarm bells have been sounding in Piscataway about a coming disaster, and not just in the high-profile behemoth that is Rutgers football.
Coaches in basketball, in wrestling, in corners of the athletic department that fans might not expect, have been telling anyone who would listen that they needed more money to compete in the changing landscape in college athletics. The message about their three fundraising priorities for now and the foreseeable future was simple:
The reason became clear on Friday morning, with the news that felt both shocking and not the least bit surprising. Cam Spencer was leaving the Rutgers basketball program, a gut punch that comes just days after head coach Steve Pikiell had thought he had avoided the kind of roster-crippling defection that has become common in his sport.
Spencer was hardly considered a flight risk. Not only was he the team’s leading scorer, but was the kind of Rutgers athlete who, just a couple weeks ago, was cheering on his fellow Scarlet Knights at the Big Ten golf championships in nearby Galloway. He had playing time, a coaching staff he liked and a guaranteed slot in dozens of primetime TV games.
What more could he want?
(Insert an appropriate Scrooge McDuck gif here.)
Multiple sources confirmed on Friday that Spencer made a business decision. When the transfer portal closed for the sport last week, the senior shooting guard — who, because he received his degree this spring, was free to go anywhere and play right away — became a hot commodity. He apparently received a name, image and likeness offer that he could not refuse, from a yet-to-be-revealed suitor that was desperate for talent.
“Tampering, lying (and) cheating one helluva combo!!” former Rutgers star Ron Harper Jr. tweeted, echoing the ire of many in Piscataway that another team’s coaches had broken rules to pry Spencer off the roster. Even if that happened, the NCAA’s weak-sauce rules are about as enforceable as a local jaywalking ordinance.
The questions remain exactly the same as they were when NIL rules went into effect last July: How far is Rutgers willing to go to compete in this new world order? And who is willing to write the checks that will make that possible?
Rutgers announced earlier this month that it would create a general manager position to “promote all-encompassing NIL endeavors” through a partnership with the outside firm Altius — a departure from the institutional hesitancy/shoulder shrugging that hampered efforts to keep up at the movement’s onset. Having someone proactively addressing this inside the athletic department should help, but it still feels like Rutgers is limbering up at the starting line when some of its competitors are on their third time around the track.
It won’t matter without the external funding. The Knights of the Raritan, the most prominent collective associated with Rutgers, launched a million-dollar fundraising campaign with the endorsement of coaches like Greg Schiano and Steve Pikiell, and as a result, every football and basketball player in Piscataway receives some NIL money.
The small deals, of course, aren’t the game changers. The real drama in college basketball is not the bracketology projections that fans obsess over in March but the rumor mill that consumes players when the transfer portal is open April and May. The surprise shouldn’t be that Spencer is leaving, but that no other key contributor already had.
Stalwarts who stayed for four years — or, like Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell, for five — are going to be a thing of the past with what amounts to unregulated free agency.
Look: Rutgers isn’t alone in this mess. Hunter Dickinson, who averaged 18.5 points and 9.0 rebounds for Michigan last season, said it “took courage” to transfer to Kansas this offseason. He might be right given the misguided blowback he faced in Ann Arbor as fans everywhere seem incapable of grasping the idea that some players don’t care as much about their alma mater as they do.
“The people hating on me would leave their job right now for a $10,000 increase,” Dickinson said on a podcast shortly after his decision became public. “I got, at Michigan, less than six figures. I got less than six figures at Michigan for the year.”
Spencer wasn’t getting that kind of money in Piscataway. He is 6-foot-4 guard who, at 23, likely recognizes that earning potential in professional basketball — well, the old version of that — was limited. Rutgers fans shouldn’t blame him for make the best decision for his future, and bellyaching about tampering is just wasting oxygen.
Rutgers coaches have known a day like this was coming for a long time, and surely they also know that another similar day is coming soon. Will it be football this time? Wrestling? Women’s basketball? In the NIL era, the only certainty is that the entrance to any college locker room is a revolving door.
MORE STEVE POLITI COLUMNS:
The untold story of how Rutgers crashed the Big Ten
How an ex-Rutgers athlete ended up charged with murder in Tijuana
I was a bird-flipping Little League menace — and it’s time to come clean
The search for Luther Wright, once N.J.’s greatest hoops talent
I played Augusta National and had my own Masters meltdown
Ranking the 99 greatest athletes in New Jersey history
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Steve Politi may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org