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Column: The Hunter Dickinson saga should be an NIL wake-up call for the University of Michigan

Michigan athletics has to embrace NIL, or risk getting left behind.

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Syndication: The Herald-Times Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times / USA TODAY NETWORK

One of my favorite Christmas presents from the last few years has been a shirt I received from my dad in 2021. Not only did the shirt celebrate one of our favorite players in college basketball — and sports in general — but it also was cool to think the money my dad spent on the shirt would go directly to the player whose name was on it.

It’s the Big Dickinson Energy shirt, and coming off Michigan’s Elite Eight run with Dickinson leading the team in scoring and rebounding, I wore it as much as I could.

I wore it to the gym. I wore it doing chores around my apartment. I wore it watching games with my friends. Sometimes I wore it to work, wearing a buttoned-up flannel over it until my bosses went home for the day.

The shirt always received interesting reactions. Admittedly, a lot of people didn’t seem to get the reference. Some people simply giggled, but the few Michigan fans who saw it and understood gave me a nod, or came up to tell me how much they loved watching Dickinson and his villain persona.

I don’t wear the shirt much anymore, partially because I ripped a hole in the left armpit, but also because Dickinson is no longer playing for the University of Michigan. He entered the transfer portal over a month ago, to the surprise of many Michigan fans. He confirmed Thursday night he wouldn’t be returning to Michigan, releasing a statement saying his goodbye to the Michigan faithful.

Now, it’s impossible to know exactly why Dickinson wanted to leave Michigan. Maybe he saw how this past year went and he wants to give himself a better chance to win with his two remaining seasons of eligibility. Maybe he wants to be the big man on campus somewhere else. Hell, maybe he’s sick of Michigan winters.

But it would be naïve to think NIL wasn’t part of the reason why he was leaving. Until recently, it seemed like Dickinson would head to Kentucky and play for a used car salesman disguised as a college basketball coach in John Calipari. As reported by Matt Jones with Kentucky Sports Radio, it seemed unlikely he’d go to Kentucky, partially due to the lack of guaranteed NIL money.

There’s plenty of reasons to hate Dickinson; he’s brash, he’s bold and he makes a lot of headlines for what he says off the court. He’s on a podcast where one of the co-hosts compared Tom Izzo to Adolph Hitler (granted, the episode was removed from the feed and he disassociated himself with the comment). He called players on the Wisconsin Badgers scumbags, shortly before a bad Wisconsin team beat Michigan and outrebounded it, 38-31.

But one thing you can’t hate Dickinson for is being himself, and cashing in on his fame while he still can.

I don’t blame Dickinson for trying to capitalize on his college basketball fame; he likely doesn’t have a long future in the NBA, and he’s one of the most famous players in the sport. It makes sense he wants to cash in while he still has as much notoriety as he does — I’m sure other well-known big men like Christian Laettner and Tyler Hansbrough would do the same, had the opportunity been available to them.

I have no ill will towards Dickinson and I truly wish him the best with the rest of his basketball career. Players like him are good for the sport — whether you love him or hate him, people love watching him play. And he’s doing what he can to capitalize on NIL.

The brass at the University of Michigan — particularly Warde Manuel and the athletic department — should be watching this situation closely. While there has there has been some improvements to NIL at Michigan — the most recent being the embrace of Hail! Impact — it’s clear NIL is still not at a spot where players, coaches and fans want it to be.

People at Michigan haven’t been shy about how they feel about NIL. Head coach Juwan Howard made comments on it in one of his first press conferences from this past offseason, saying he’d like to see more done for the program.

I agreed wholeheartedly with Howard at the time, and I still agree now. Yes, the world of NIL is confusing, unorganized and a little scary, but Michigan needs to do a better job embracing NIL and make sure players have the ability to cash in on their fame while at Ann Arbor. And the deals need to be bigger than getting a saxophone from a local music shop.

Whether Michigan likes it or not, other schools are embracing NIL and are picking up talented recruits like Dickinson in the portal because of it.

This should be a wake-up call for Michigan when it comes to NIL. It’s 2023 — players don’t just attend schools like Michigan because they love the tradition, the chance to get a good degree and the exceptional athletic program. They know they can win here, and they want to get paid while they do it, an opportunity that should have been available across the sport a long time ago.

The athletic department needs to embrace NIL more, as scary as that world is. Charles Darwin once said, “The species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to and to adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

If Michigan doesn’t adapt and embrace NIL like other programs have, more talented players like Dickinson will leave, selling shirts in the colors of other schools.