Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) smiles before doing an interview with Kim Adams on FS1 after a NCAA women’s basketball game against Drake, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

When it comes to Caitlin Clark, we are used to staggering facts and figures that we have never seen before. The Iowa Hawkeyes star is a transformational figure and arguably the hottest athlete in terms of rising star power in sports today. But this week, we learned a tidbit about that star power that could have potentially opened up a Pandora’s box for NIL, college sports, and the networks that cover them.

Puck’s John Ourand reported that Fox Sports, who televises many of Clark’s games with the network’s Big Ten contract, considered putting together an NIL package that could convince Clark to stay in college.

Clark has obviously been huge to the bottom line of Fox and NBC and anyone else televising women’s college basketball. Fox’s women’s college basketball coverage is outrating its men’s coverage this year, largely thanks to Iowa. And Clark has had so many games on Peacock in an attempt to drive subs that she might as well have her own category on the platform.

Even though Fox didn’t ultimately take the step towards writing a check, it’s easy to see the issues of ethics, fairness, and competitive balance that it could have caused.

It’s one thing for networks to pull the strings of conference realignment and reshape college sports to their liking. (RIP, Pac-12 Conference.) It’s quite another to be directly involved in paying or sponsoring specific athletes to benefit their television ratings and thereby favoring certain schools.

Take a step back – how would the Ohio State women’s basketball program feel about Fox giving money to an Iowa star? How would anyone else in the Big Ten feel if another school suddenly received extra payouts that they did not? It would be a huge advantage for Iowa over the rest of the competition and it would come from the network rightsholder. The fact that Fox even thought about directly interfering in the competition they cover through an NIL offer to a player is mind-blowing.

Could you imagine the outcry from fans about a rightsholder showing favoritism towards a player or school knowing that she or he was on the network payroll? How would it effect the coverage of that athlete? Would the announcers show favoritism towards them? Would they push for rankings or awards? These would all be totally legitimate questions.

And if Fox truly considered a Caitlin Clark NIL deal, what’s to stop the idea from going further? Could the network convince a highly touted prospect to come to Ohio State or Michigan? Could NBC, Fox, and CBS team up to try to lure transfers away from the SEC (and ESPN) to play on their networks? What’s to stop not just universities and collectives, but networks themselves, from bidding on the top stars in college sports.

The conspiracies around ESPN’s dissing of Florida State were sent into overdrive in the fall after they missed the College Football Playoff. Could you imagine the nuclear reaction if ESPN was paying players on Georgia during that entire debate?

It’s insane to think about as a possibility. It would carry all kinds of ethical dilemmas that have never ever been considered before in sports broadcasting. But in modern college athletics, everything is on the table.

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