ATLANTA – Some of the most famous and highest-paid people in college football took to the stage in Atlanta last week to play the role of college sports reaper. Whether it’s name, image and likeness, conference realignment, transfer portal, conference expansion – but mostly no business – coaches at Southeastern Conference Football Days took turns shedding light on the future of the sport.
In some cases, all he was missing was a black robe and a sickle.
“I don’t know if there has been a volatile, uncertain, ever-changing period within college athletics,” said Mark Stubbs of the University of Kentucky. “In a lot of this we have very little or no control over as head coach.”
“What makes you human nature to fear? The unknown,” said Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M. “We have a lot unknown. That’s why we are all on edge and panicked about what is happening.”
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It’s been just over a year since the NCAA relaxed its long-established rules prohibiting college athletes from making use of their name, image, and likeness. Since last summer, we’ve seen athletes from all sports sign lucrative endorsement deals, some in the seven-figure range. We’ve seen donor-led NIL groups form in college markets to funnel money toward athletes. We have seen universities lobby state legislatures to pass NIL laws to facilitate the interaction of coaches and school administrators with reinforcement-led groups. And while many Atlanta-based coaches have praised the benefits of NIL for their players—Alabama’s Nick Saban said his players made $3 million in NIL deals last year—some of them are quick to pick NIL as their sportsman, especially when it comes to recruiting.
“The biggest concern is how does this affect the hiring process?” said Saban, who earns more than $9 million a year on his current salary. “In the recruitment path right now, there are a lot of people using this as temptations to go to their school by making promises about whether or not they might be able to fulfill what the players do.
“I think that’s what could create a competitive balance issue between haves and have-nots. We’re one of the rich. Don’t think what I’m saying is a concern we have in Alabama because we’re one of the rich. Nobody in college football can do these things for me. How to raise money en masse or something else, how to distribute the money to the players.”
“There is no competitive sport anywhere that does not have guidelines on how to maintain some kind of competitive balance,” he added. “I think this is important for college football. I think it is important for the fans.”
Consolidation, parameters and fender. This is what coaches seek in the zero era. How we get there is another story. SEC coaches, who have historically recruited the nation’s best players before the era of zero, have had a lot of complaints about the current system that now allows free transfers, some certainly influenced by NIL’s offerings, leading to what many coaches describe as “bidding wars.” But solutions were rare in Atlanta. Securities and Exchange Commission Commissioner Greg Sankey has stuck to his preference for federal legislation to establish uniform regulations on no-components, an idea his coaches don’t necessarily endorse.
“We’re going to have to sort it out ourselves, in my opinion, colleges and conventions,” Mississippi’s Mike Leach said Wednesday at Paul Feinbaum’s show in Atlanta. Helper, helper, helpful, benefactor. We know more about the problem than we do.”
Leach may be the only SEC coach with a solution in mind, although it would likely be too drastic for the NCAA’s appetite. He suggested prospective college players sign up as either traditional student-athletes or paid professionals — with the caveat that teams can draft, chop and trade pros, just like professional leagues.
“I don’t think the dust has gone away,” Leech said. “We are in a big transition period on a number of things in college football. We have smart guys trying very hard to sort it out.”
Other coaches, from Saban to Lynn Kevin in Mississippi, have danced around the idea of a salary cap in college sports that, realistically, cannot happen without revenue sharing, collective bargaining, and unionization among players. Players in Pennsylvania lay the foundations for achieving those ends but encounter countless obstacles along the way.
Not everyone in Atlanta came for nothing bash. One group you don’t hear complaining: the players.
“I make the money for myself of course, but I really don’t do it to help my family very much,” said Alabama midfielder Will Anderson Jr. “I don’t want my parents to have to worry and worry about how they got to my games.”
Georgia’s Kirby Smart noted that 95 of his players have had none deals, including the safety of Dan Jackson, a former player whose zero earnings helped pay for his father’s dialysis medical costs.
“You have dramatically changed the way young people enter your program, how much they think about each situation they are involved in, how they are portrayed in what is on social media, the decisions they make every night of the week,” said Tennessee State coach Josh Hubble.
“I think in these ways it’s an empowering tool for our student-athletes.”
Other coaches are eager for answers and solutions to the perceived problems that plague their sport. The coaches of the 14 SEC’s in Atlanta last week will receive nearly $90 million in their salaries this year – before the bonus is paid – as part of a billion-dollar industry fueled and controlled by television money. A week after the Big Ten reached halfway across the country to add UCLA and USC to create a conference that would challenge geography and history but span four time zones, Eli Drinkwitz of Missouri took an enthusiastic stance on the state of the game, calling for the sport. Leaders “to set a course and a vision for the future.”
“I’m just worried what are the guiding principles that guide us in our decision-making?” He said. “If someone could tell everyone what they are, that would be great. … That, to me, is the bigger question. It’s not a hobby. Right? Please say we’re above hypocrisy moving forward. We brag about billions of dollars in TV rights and things Like that. So what are those guiding principles moving forward that we will go along with?”