ATLANTA — Some of the highest-paid and most famous people in college football took the stage in Atlanta this past week to play the role of college sports’ grim reaper. Whether it be name, image and likeness, conference realignment, the transfer portal, conference expansion — but mostly NIL business — coaches at Southeastern Conference football media days took turns casting doom over the sport’s future.
In some cases, all that was missing was a black robe and scythe.
“I don’t know if there’s ever been a more volatile, uncertain and ever-changing period within college athletics,” Kentucky’s Mark Stoops said. “In much of this we have very little or no control over as a head coach.”
“What does human nature make you scared of? The unknown,” Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher said. “We have so much unknown. That’s why we’re all on the edge and panicked about what’s going on.”
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It’s been a little over a year since the NCAA loosened its long-held rules that prohibited college athletes from profiting off their name, image and likeness. Since last summer, we’ve seen athletes across all sports sign lucrative endorsement deals, some in the seven-figure range. We’ve seen donor-driven NIL collectives take shape in college markets to funnel money toward athletes. We’ve seen universities lobby state legislatures to pass NIL laws to make it easier for coaches and school administrators to interact with the booster-led collectives. And while several coaches in Atlanta extolled the benefits of NIL for their players — Alabama’s Nick Saban said his players made $3 million in NIL deals in the last year — some are just as quick to cast NIL as the sport’s boogeyman, especially when it comes to recruiting.
“The biggest concern is how does this impact and affect recruiting?” said Saban, who makes more than $9 million a year on his current salary. “On the recruiting trail right now, there’s a lot of people using this as inducements to go to their school by making promises as to whether they may or may not be able to keep in terms of what players are doing.
“I think that is what can create a competitive balance issue between the haves and have nots. We’re one of the haves. Don’t think that what I’m saying is a concern that we have at Alabama because we’re one of the haves. Everybody in college football cannot do these things relative to how they raise money in a collective or whatever, how they distribute money to players.”
“There is no competitive sport anywhere that doesn’t have guidelines on how they maintain some kind of competitive balance,” he added. “I think that’s important to college football. I think it’s important to fans.”
Uniformity, parameters and guardrails. That’s what coaches seek in the age of NIL. How to get there is another story. SEC coaches, who historically recruited the nation’s best players before the NIL age, had plenty of complaints about the current system that now allows free transfers, some surely swayed by NIL offers, leading to what several coaches described as “bidding wars.” But solutions were scarce in Atlanta. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey stuck with his preference for federal legislation to establish standardized NIL regulations — an idea his coaches don’t necessarily endorse.
“We’re going to have to solve that ourselves, in my opinion, the colleges and conferences,” Mississippi State’s Mike Leach said Wednesday on Paul Finebaum’s show in Atlanta “I’ve never bought into the notion that Congress is going to be very helpful. We know more about the problem than they do.”
Leach might be the only SEC coach who has a solution in mind, albeit one that’s likely far too radical for the NCAA’s appetite. He suggested prospective college players register as either traditional student-athletes or paid professionals — with the caveat that teams can draft, cut and trade the pros, just like the professional leagues.
“I don’t think the dust has settled,” Leach said. “We’re in a big transition period on a number of things in college football. We got sharp guys actively trying to sort it out.”
Other coaches, from Saban to Mississippi’s Lane Kiffin, danced around the idea of a salary cap in college sports, which can’t happen, realistically, without revenue sharing, collective bargaining and player unionization. Players at Penn State are laying the groundwork to achieve those ends but figure to face countless obstacles along the way.
Not everyone in Atlanta came to bash NIL. One group you don’t hear complaining: the players.
“I put money aside for, of course, myself, but I really am doing NIL to help my family a lot,” Alabama star linebacker Will Anderson Jr. said. “I don’t want my parents to have to be stressing and worried about how they’re going to get to my games.”
Georgia’s Kirby Smart noted that 95 of his players have NIL deals, including safety Dan Jackson, a former walk-on, whose NIL earnings have helped him pay medical costs for his father’s dialysis.
“It’s dramatically changed the way that young people come into your program,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said, “how thoughtful they are about every situation that they’re involved in, how they’re portrayed in what’s out there on social media, the decisions they’re making every night of the week.
“I think in those ways it’s such an empowering tool for our student-athletes.”
Other coaches are anxious for answers and solutions to the perceived problems plaguing their sport. The 14 SEC coaches in Atlanta this past week will make approximately $90 million in salaries this year — before bonus pay — as part of a billion-dollar industry fueled and controlled by TV money. A week after the Big Ten reached halfway across the country to add UCLA and USC to create a conference that defies geography and history but will span four time zones, Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz took an impassioned stance on the state of the game, calling for the sport’s leaders “to set a course and vision for the future.”
“I just worry what are the guiding principles that are guiding us in our decision-making process?” he said. “If somebody can just inform everybody on what those are, that’d be great. … That, to me, is the biggest question. It’s not amateurism. Right? Please say we’re beyond the hypocrisy of that moving forward. We’re bragging about billion-dollar TV rights and things like that. So what are those guiding principles moving forward that we’re going to be aligned with?”