DETROIT — College football is a wonderful mess, as usual. The NCAA is clueless, as usual. Boosters are relentless, as usual. Fans are gleefully willing to overlook escalating concerns as long as Johnny Fivestar sticks to his commitment and Coach Bigbucks beats State U.
This is what everyone wanted, right? Expand the playoff! Expand the power conferences! Build bigger weight rooms and coaching offices to comfortably fit all the egos!
The sport has been rocked by its own largesse and arrogance, and it’s impossible to gauge where it’s headed. Once the Supreme Court confirmed players’ rights to earn money based on their Name, Image and Likeness (NIL), the commerce barriers were gone. It was the correct ruling, by the way. If an athlete’s name, image or likeness is used for profit by a school, the athlete deserves compensation. No argument here.
But if you thought NIL wouldn’t immediately be abused and lead to more controversy, you’re a dope. Everyone gets to jump in, and even better for chaos junkies, the rules are ambiguous and unenforceable. Those boosters confined to the shadows for decades? Come on in! That’s how you end up with a situation like last week, when Alabama’s Nick Saban and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher engaged in hilariously vicious mudslinging in which they pretended to be shocked by what the other was saying.
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Saban accused Fisher of bending NIL guidelines to buy his top-rated recruiting class. Fisher was furious.
“It’s despicable that a reputable head coach can come out and say this when he doesn’t get his way,” said Fisher, who worked under Saban at LSU. “The narcissist in him doesn’t allow those things to happen. It’s ridiculous when he’s not on top.”
The spat was remarkable, and would be even funnier if it wasn’t shaded by truth. In the new NIL world, it’s no longer: Who’s cheating? It’s, what is cheating anyhow?
Get in the game
For everyone — fans, media, politicians, university leaders — who screamed that schools needed to pay athletes, and then offered not a single reasonable way to do it, congratulations. Way to think this through. First of all, schools aren’t even paying the athletes now, confirming the folly of begging for a plan that would have to compensate football players, basketball players, tennis players and every other sport. Title IX requires equal opportunity and benefits for males and females in all education-related activities, which always was the impediment. But because the NCAA so blatantly gorged on player-related marketing, it created a disparity even the Supreme Court couldn’t ignore.
Now if you’re not playing the NIL game, you’re not in the game. Michigan State has cranked it up, with mortgage mogul Mat Ishbia providing funds for the basketball and football teams. Michigan has been less demonstrative, but a company called Valiant Management Group is doing more and more. Naturally, Ohio State is at the forefront.
If played fairly, the system makes sense. College athletes should be able to profit off their autographs or pictures. It’s partly the reason Michigan center Hunter Dickinson stayed for his junior season. If a car dealership wants to slap Johnny Fivestars’ name on the showroom window, pay him. And the NCAA can’t stop it.
But the reason Saban and Fisher spent a day snarking at each other — eliciting reprimands from the always-honorable SEC — is something called “collectives.” They’re basically marketing agencies not connected to the universities that are funded by alums and boosters. Those collectives find endorsement opportunities for athletes once they’re on campus. They cannot be used as recruiting inducements and can’t have direct ties to the schools.
Great idea, right? And it worked well for about 15 seconds.
Saban sounded bitter and desperate. Alabama finished second to Texas A&M in the recruiting rankings and second on the field, losing to the Aggies 41-38. Hypocritical wails from a 70-year-old legend fearful his program’s enormous advantages are slipping? Perhaps. But Saban has masterfully carved new paths since his early days at Michigan State, going to LSU and eventually to Alabama. With seven national championships, he always adjusts.
Speaking at a dinner with local business leaders in Alabama, Saban griped, and whether he has a point or not, he’s the wrong one to be griping.
“A&M bought every player on their team — made a deal for name, image and likeness,” Saban said. “We didn’t buy one player. But I don’t know if we’re going to be able to sustain that in the future, because more and more people are doing it.”
Saban went on to say the NCAA is powerless, which it essentially is. Coaches can use the “possibility” of NIL money in recruiting, but the collectives can’t make deals until a player has signed with the school or entered the transfer portal. The portal has dramatically changed college athletics, and it’s also rooted in a fair concept. Players should be able to transfer without penalty, within reason. If a player is entering the portal multiple times, you wonder if he’s shopping for playing time, or an NIL deal, or promises that won’t be kept.
There’s so much confusion and angst because no one has a solution. (Not even me!) Some aren’t even sure a solution is needed. Cap the amount a program can receive in NIL money? Tighten transfer rules to hamper pay-for-play inducements?
Saban later apologized for singling out Fisher, as well as Jackson State coach Deion Sanders. In Fisher’s blistering response, he spent more time name-calling than refuting specific charges.
“Some people think they’re God,” Fisher said of Saban. “Go dig into how God did his deal. You may find out a lot of things you don’t want to know. … It’s despicable.”
Quick interpretation of Fisher’s response: “How can a cheater accuse me of cheating?!”
It could get worse
Fisher worked under Saban at LSU from 2000-04, so he probably knows a lot. Maybe he learned a lot. Saban generally teaches lessons, but he learned one here. In his apology, Saban clarified his stance, that NIL basically makes it legal to buy players, “and it’s only going to get worse unless there’s some federal legislation.”
And you know who agrees with that? None other than Sanders, who made huge news by flipping No. 1 recruit Travis Hunter from Florida State to Jackson State. Sanders and Hunter adamantly denied rumors Hunter accepted a $1.5 million deal. Pitt receiver Jordan Addison went on a free-agent tour and supposedly got $3.5 million to transfer to USC. Most of these alleged deals — Texas A&M refuted a rumor it has a $30 million pool of NIL funds — aren’t confirmed.
But they’re out there using the gray areas, complicated by varying state laws. Saban suggested Jackson State bought Hunter, which Sanders angrily called a lie. But even before the latest uproar, Sanders admitted concerns.
“NCAA, you've got a little problem,” Sanders said recently. “With the NIL — which really ain't NIL because it ain't no name, image, and likeness — it's just pay-per view right now. That's what they're doing at the big boys, and little boys we can't compete with that. But anyway, you've got a problem."
Is it a problem that will ruin college football? Not exactly. The rich programs are likely to get richer, and having the same 10-15 powers for years hasn’t destroyed the sport. Other deep-pocketed programs lacking success might find (or fund) a path upward, although a level playing field has never been a realistic goal.
The greatest things about college football are the passionate competitiveness, the rivalries, even the vitriol. But in the absence of true leaders — not the bloated NCAA — the best interests of certain individuals, or certain programs, or certain conferences, always supersede the best interests of the game. Chances of that ever changing? Nil and NIL.