Congress to enter NCAA ‘arms race’

As we near mid-August, the pulse quickens and the anticipation begins in earnest — football season is nearly upon us. 

In our neck of the woods, college football is king, although high school and NFL are close behind. Who knows, we might have even found room in our hearts for Major League Football if it hadn’t run out of money and all its players weren’t kicked out of their hotel rooms last week. Even without the MLF, though, there’s plenty of pigskin fun to go around. 

But more and more the ground beneath college football’s feet is shifting — due primarily to the infusion of name, image and likeness (NIL) money now flooding into the sport as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in NCAA v. Alston. As the second season of NIL begins, there’s certainly a general freakout among many in the game’s hierarchy due to the mind-boggling swiftness with which NIL has blown apart standard conceptions about college football. 

If you’re not familiar with NIL, in a nutshell, it allows college athletes to now receive compensation for use of their name, image or likeness. In other words, it allows these players — some of whom are household names — to reap the financial benefits of marketing themselves. Before NIL was allowed, college athletes couldn’t take anything from outside sources. They got their scholarships and that was it. Even if the schools made billions, the coaches made tens of millions a year and everyone else got to wet their beaks through jersey sales, video games, etc., players couldn’t even sniff that money.

Now they can sniff away. And the boosters — the rich maniacs who have already made college coaching salaries obscenely high — have found new, creative ways to spend their money to make good ol’ State U competitive. This is particularly true of college football. 

Kids who’ve never played a down are lining up deals worth millions a year. Imagine that, 18-year-olds are walking in on that first day making as much or more than the president of the university. Not as much as the head coach, though — yet. 

It’s a have and have-not world — just like the real world. The highly valued positions like quarterback, receiver and defensive back have more opportunities to make big dollars versus less conspicuous players along the offensive and defensive lines or backups. Combined with the “transfer portal,” which allows college athletes to leave one school for another without the previous penalty of having to sit out a year, student-athletes are more in the driver’s seat than they’ve ever been. And that is upsetting the NCAA applecart. 

The schools that have been perennial powerhouses are getting nervous watching top prospects sign with maybe-not-quite-as-good schools where they can get more money. Couple that with the possibility of that blue-chip second stringer stashed on the bench being able to go start somewhere else AND make life-changing money, and it’s not hard to see why some coaches aren’t very happy. 

Former Auburn, Ole Miss, etc. head coach and current Alabama U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville has taken a particular interest in this issue. Along with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, Tuberville wrote a letter last week to Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey assuring him Congress “must act” to get this mess under control. 

“The arms race of NIL implementation has already far exceeded the original post-Alston intent of ensuring that players are equitably compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness. A lack of clear, enforceable rules is creating an environment that potentially allows for the exploitation of student-athletes by unregulated entities, prioritizes short-term financial gain over careful investment in one’s career and the lifelong value of education, and diminishes the role of coaches, mentors and athletic staff while empowering wealthy boosters. In short, we are rapidly accelerating down a path that leads away from the traditional values associated with scholastic athletic competition. The lack of meaningful leadership and a lack of clarity in this area resulting from Alston means that the U.S. Congress must act to set clear ground rules for student-athletes and institutions alike,” Tuberville and Manchin wrote. “Like you, we have the common goals of protecting student-athletes, ensuring fair competition and compensation, and preserving the time-honored traditions of college sports.” 

The letter goes on to say their staffs are busily drafting legislation and welcome input from SEC leaders. Given the urgent tone, I can only guess the legislation eventually presented will seek to put student-athletes back under the NCAA thumb to whatever degree possible. 

It’s laughable to talk about short-term financial gain versus investment in a career when we’re talking about a game where students routinely blow knees out in practice or otherwise sustain injuries playing college sports that effectively ruin their chances in the pros. What parent wouldn’t tell their son to take the money at a “lesser” school instead of sitting on the bench in a legacy program hoping for that teeny tiny chance of playing in the NFL? One wrong hit in practice and even that chance would be gone. 

As for the “unregulated entities,” that sounds like boosters — the same unregulated entities that have blasted coaching salaries into the stratosphere and created the concept of paying failures tens of millions just to go away. It wasn’t a national emergency when the boosters began trying to buy the best coach. 

That’s the real issue here. The universe of coaches who might be able to compete with Nick Saban and Alabama is tiny. Maybe almost non-existent. That doesn’t keep boosters from throwing more and more money at the problem. Now consider the huge field of athletes of varying skill and there’s a target-rich environment for boosters. And schools in states that have a lot more super-wealthy supporters suddenly have an easier way to become relevant. 

The top programs have had an easier path to recruiting and hoarding top players, and that’s been good for them. It’s been good for many student-athletes as well, but I’m sure plenty of others never got that chance they thought they deserved or were too hurt to go to the next level. 

Yes, NIL is a bit of a “Wild West” right now, but what’s the answer? Like it or not, college football in particular is big business and the universities have welcomed that. Until NIL, everyone but the actual talent on the field was getting rich and the schools created an atmosphere where money was no object when it came to winning. Now it’s wrong because the actual talent want a piece of the action?

NCAA football has been on this trajectory for some time. Every time someone resets the bar for what coaches get paid, it takes more teams out of the realm of ever being competitive. This is just more of the same, only this time the players have a say and we may not be sure what the top program in the country is in two years.

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