Offended college coaches get paid for another hypocrisy
Last week marked a turning point in college football. Nick Saban complained that a rival school had an advantage in recruiting.
Saban has won seven national championships, including six at Alabama, his current school. He is the most famous coach in his sport. When Saban makes a home visit, the parents faint. The family dog signs up. Alabama is sending so many players to the NFL that they should hold the draft in Tuscaloosa.
But here’s the man last week, at an event in Birmingham, complaining that his conference rival Texas A&M “bought all the players” in its No. 1-ranked recruiting class, and Alabama couldn’t keep up.
Now, if you’re late for the game, you might be wondering, “How can a school buy a player?” I thought it was against the rules to pay college athletes.
It was. In a way, it still is. But after the Supreme Court dealt it a terrible blow last June, the NCAA realized it was in danger of imploding. If it doesn’t loosen the purse strings somehow, it might no longer enjoy life as a multi-billion dollar corporation that pays its workforce in free shoes and all the meatloaf she can eat.
So the NCAA passed new name, image and likeness rules, which apparently were supposed to allow athletes to make money off of their identity. If a car dealer wanted to pay a college quarterback to be on a billboard, so be it. Cash the check.
This represented a major change in policy. Until then, a college athlete could get fired for taking a free burger from the wrong person. The NIL was supposed to let the athletes get wet with all the money flowing through college sports, while making sure that none of those funds actually came from, you know, the school itself.
FROM DECEMBER:Mitch Albom: Santa Claus has already visited college athletes this year
EXPLANATION :What is NIL and what is Michigan and the State of Michigan doing about it?
Where there’s a will, there’s a salary
But as with almost all the rules that govern major college sports off the field, people quickly found ways to bend the rules. The NIL technically prohibited boosters from directly offering money to a recruit. But that didn’t stop so-called “collectives” which were ways people who worshiped their alma mater could pool their money so players could share it.
Here, according to Saban, is what went wrong:
“The problem with the name and image and likeness is that the coaches (who) came out and said, ‘OK, how can we use this to our advantage? They’ve created what’s called a “collective”…an outside marketing agency that isn’t tied to the university and is funded by university alumni. …
“That marketing agency then routes it to the players. The coach actually knows how much money there is in the collective, so he knows how much he can promise each player. It’s not what the name, image and likeness was meant to be. That’s what it’s become, and that’s the problem with college athletics right now.
He’s not wrong. But you could have seen it coming like a Boeing 757 landing on your porch. Of course, boosters and wealthy elders were going to find ways around the rules. They’ve been doing this for years!
USA TODAY columnist:Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher act like children in the adult world of NIL
And although the coaches deny having anything to do with it, they can wink, nod, let others do the talking and basically make sure the player they want knows exactly how much cheddar he’ll put on his sandwich if he comes.
Of course, some guys — quarterbacks, starting point guards — will have a lot more cheese than others. And rookies, knowing this is their chance to score big, will undoubtedly ask the question – spoken or unspoken – “How much money are you going to make sure I get?”
This annoys Saban. “Our job is not to buy you off to come to school here,” he said at the event. “I don’t know how you run a dressing room. And I don’t know if it’s a sustainable model. I know we’re going to lose recruits because someone else will be willing to pay them more.
He is not wrong, but is he right?
Now, no one is going to feel sorry for Saban when he says he’s going to lose rookies, let alone his rivals. Jimbo Fisher, the Texas A&M coach, angrily responded to Saban’s accusations, calling him a “narcissist” and saying he thinks he’s “God.” Fisher also insisted that A&M had done nothing illegal.
But that’s the problem. It’s not illegal. The rules allowed collective loopholes and relied on self-reporting for serious violations. But it all happens so fast that no one even knows how to report violations.
The simple truth is that if you give boosters and alumni the slightest bit of opening, they will find a way to shovel money from star athletes. They may have to bend, hide, channel, or rename that way, but they’ll find it.
And the athletes know the money is there. So you get cases like University of Miami (Florida) basketball player Isaiah Wong who recently threatened to quit unless his NIL money was increased. Wong was reportedly upset that a Miami transfer student was given $800,000 and a car.
And yes, I wrote “$800,000 and a car”. College stars moved from Kia to Mercedes overnight. It’s not unusual for a top quarterback to now top $1 million in NIL money. Maybe an 18-year-old freshman or a 19-year-old sophomore. They can rake it.
And it’s hard to say they shouldn’t. If a world-class guitarist comes to State U. and a record company wants to do a commercial with him, he’s free to do so. Ditto for a tech genius. Or a young fashion designer.
The problem with sport is attracting the best players with money which affects the competitive balance. That’s why everyone wants to do it. You can quickly become the best team money can buy. And while that’s exactly how professional sports work, some stubborn old goats (like me) still think it’s bad for the college game.
But hey, it’s less college than gaming right now. The NIL, despite new attempts to repress collectives, is a perfectly convenient way for outside influence to blend seamlessly with internal advantage. Saban saw it. He complained about it. On Friday, he apologized for singling out certain schools. But he stayed true to his message.
“It’s not meant to be something where…you decide where you go to school based on how much money you’re going to make.”
Then again, Saban served as a head coach at four different universities, including Michigan State, always going for better pay. He’s the highest-paid college football coach in the nation at $9.75 million last season (and growing).
That’s the thing with big college sports. This has long been the code for “hypocrisy”. With NIL they just write it differently.