Last week marked a watershed moment 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’s the most famous coach in his sport. When Saban makes a home visit, parents swoon. The family dog signs up. Alabama sends so many players to the NFL, they should hold the draft in Tuscaloosa.
But here was the man last week, at an event in Birmingham, complaining that Texas A&M, a rival in his conference, "bought every player" in its No. 1-ranked recruiting class, and Alabama couldn’t keep pace.
Now, if you’re late to the game, you might be saying, "How can a school buy a player? I thought it was against the rules to pay college athletes."
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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 implosion. If it didn’t somehow loosen the purse strings, it might no longer enjoy life as a multibillion-dollar operation that pays its labor force in free shoes and all the meatloaf it can eat.
So the NCAA adopted new name, image and likeness rules, which, ostensibly, were supposed to allow athletes to make money off their identities. If a car dealership wanted to pay a college quarterback to be on a billboard, so be it. Cash the check.
This represented a major shift in policy. Up to that point, a college athlete could get bounced for taking a free hamburger from the wrong person. The NIL was supposed to let athletes wet their beak with all the money flying around college sports, while still insuring none of that money actually came from, you know, the school itself.
Where there's a will, there's a paycheck
But as with pretty much any rule that governs big-time college sports off the field, people soon found ways to bend the rules. The NIL technically forbade boosters from directly offering money to a recruit. But it didn’t stop something called "collectives" which were ways that folks who just loved their alma mater could pool their money so the players could share in it.
Here, according to Saban, is what went wrong:
"The problem with name, image and likeness is coaches (who) went out and said, 'OK, how can we use this to our advantage?' They created what's called a 'collective' … an outside marketing agency that's not tied to the university that's funded by alumni from the university. …
"That marketing agency then funnels it to the players. The coach actually knows how much money is in the collective, so he knows how much he can promise every player. That's not what name, image and likeness was supposed to be. That's what it's become, and that's the problem in college athletics right now."
He’s not wrong. But you could have seen this coming like a Boeing 757 landing on your porch. Of course boosters and rich alumni were going to find ways around the rules. They’ve been doing that for years!
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And while coaches will deny having anything to do with it, they can wink, nod, allow others to do their talking, and essentially make sure the player they want knows exactly how much cheddar he’ll be putting on his sandwich should he come.
Of course, some guys — quarterbacks, starting point guards — will get far more cheese than others. And recruits, knowing this is their chance to make a big score, will no doubt pose the question — spoken or unspoken — “How much money are you going to make sure I get?"
This rankles Saban. "Our job is not to buy you to come to school here," he said during the event. "I don't know how you manage a locker room. And I don't know if this is a sustainable model. I know that we're going to lose recruits because somebody else is going to be willing to pay them more."
He's not wrong, but is he right?
Now, no one is going to feel sorry for Saban when he says he’s going to lose recruits, least of all his rivals. Jimbo Fisher, the coach of Texas A&M, responded angrily to Saban’s charges, calling him a "narcissist" and saying he thinks he’s "God." Fisher also insisted A&M didn’t do anything illegal.
But that’s the problem. It’s not illegal. The rules allowed the collective loophole, and relied on self-reporting for severe violations. But it’s all happening so fast, no one even knows how to report violations.
The simple truth is, if you give boosters and alumni even the slightest opening, they’ll find a way to shovel money to star athletes. They may have to bend, hide, funnel 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 recently threatening to leave unless his NIL money was increased. Wong was reportedly upset an incoming Miami transfer student was getting $800,000 and a car.
And yes, I did write "$800,000 and a car." College stars went from Kia to Mercedes overnight. It’s not unusual for a top quarterback now to top $1 million in NIL money. Might be an 18-year-old freshman, or a 19-year-old sophomore. They can rake it in.
And it’s hard to say they shouldn’t. If a world class guitarist goes to State U. and a record company wants to make a commercial with him, he’s free to do so. Same for a tech genius. Or a young fashion designer.
The problem with sports is luring the best players with money affects competitive balance. Which is why everyone wants to do it. You can quickly become the best team money could buy. And while this is exactly how pro sports operate, some stubborn old goats (like me) still think this is bad for the college game.
But then, it’s less college than game right now. The NIL, despite new attempts to clamp down on the collectives, is a perfectly handy way for outside influence to mix seamlessly with inside benefits. Saban saw it. He complained about it. On Friday he apologized for singling out certain schools. But he stuck by his message.
"It's not supposed to be something where … you make a decision about where you go to school based on how much money you're going to make."
Then again, Saban has head-coached at four different universities, including Michigan State, always leaving for a bigger better paycheck. He's the highest-paid college football coach in the country at $9.75 million last season (and it's only going up).
That’s the thing about big time college sports. It’s long been code for "hypocrisy." With NIL, they’re just spelling it differently.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Mitch Albom: Coaches miffed college players get paid is new hypocrisy