College football is the big dog and its wagging tail is the ivory tower.
That’s the reality, high-ed fans. I know, I know. Football is not the raison d’être of high school. At least that’s what all purists say.
It’s just hard to maintain the traditional downplaying of collegiate athletics, especially football, when it’s such an important revenue stream for many schools, adding millions of dollars to an institution’s budget. College coaches are routinely the highest-paid members of any public or private university. Alabama’s Nick Saban has long been considered the nation’s highest-paid public servant, serving as the university’s head soccer coach. With an annual salary of around $10 million, he tops a list of other public employees, the top 30 of which are college athletic coaches at public universities.
So if you really want to know the big news, consider the exchange between millionaire coaches Saban, Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher and Jackson State’s Deion Sanders. Saban publicly lamented that Texas A&M was “buying players” to fill their rosters. I say publicly lamented because he was speaking specifically to the best alumni a college has: football boosters. Saban didn’t like being thrown out by Fisher despite “buying players,” even though it’s now perfectly legal to sound improper under what college sports call the NIL.
It stands for “Name, Likeness, and Likeness,” the determination of NCAA rules that allows students to benefit from their game and essentially turn them into professional athletes. Under NIL, schools are allowed to recruit high school prospects and pledge the moon. Or at least cars, cash and other valuable assets that lock a prospect to one school until the student is allowed to enter the transfer portal and go to another school and bid for their services through NIL.
This is the new environment and it apparently upsets Saban, who now has a lot more competition for young talent. He just let his alumni boosters know if they want a winning team, hint hint let’s increase donations. So Saban used Fisher of Texas A&M, saying Fisher would “buy every player on his team.” Fisher denied doing anything wrong but the fact is below zero (names, picture and likeness) it all seems to be on the up.
Saban also attacked Sanders, who is now a coach at an HBCU, for playing under the new NIL rules. Saban said Jackson State paid $1 million to the top recruits in the Class of 2022 to sign with Sanders and JSU.
Sanders responded: “Coach Saban used me and Jimbo Fisher as pawns in his request for help from his booster and donors.”
Aside from the trainers, Saban has been lashed out by the SEC for his comments that apparently it’s against ethics to talk about other trainers. But the conference said nothing about NIL activities that don’t break any rules, at least not yet. Still, I bet a lot of people were unaware of how the NIL regulations are changing college sports. Does it damage it? You mean more than it already is? If anything, NIL provides a framework to make things a bit more transparent. No more secret financial transactions from alumni to athletes.
Now is it a real payday for the people who have been exploited for years? These would be students with exceptional athletic ability who are otherwise economically disadvantaged in every respect. And a large majority are colored. This is the upgrade of the sports scholarship. And in many ways the new prize for diversity. Yes, there will continue to be the standard athlete scholarship, which will include tuition, room and board.
Or maybe just lessons.
But for the standout high school players who are destined to be stars of the future, the price of the game just went up. And you could say it’s about time. Because the big money from university sports has always enriched universities and coaches like Saban for too long. They get paid big while the students are exploited for peanuts.
That’s why NIL exists, to recognize that students deserve a little more than a hug for their love of the game. Now some players are paid proportionally to their value for a school. That’s called fairness. And what about the love of learning, of college? That’s why NIL is the reality check. Do the NIL rules need to be changed? Is it too much reality for people? Or just right?
Saban’s outburst just let everyone know how it works in practice. It’s a milestone for how this has perhaps become the real business of higher education these days – where football is the big dog and the ivory tower is its tail.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. You can follow him on Twitter @emilamok