College football is the big dog and the tail its wagging is the ivory tower.
That’s the reality, higher ed fans. I know, I know. Football is not higher ed’s raison d’etre. At least, that’s what all the purists keep telling themselves.
It’s just hard to keep up the traditional downplaying of college athletics, specifically of football, when for many schools it is such an important revenue source providing millions of dollars to an institution’s budget. College coaches routinely are the highest paid members of any university, public or private. Alabama’s Nick Saban has been reported for years as the highest paid public employee in the country, as the university’s head football coach. At an annual salary around $10 million a year, he leads a list of other public employees, the top 30 of whom are college athletic coaches at public universities.
So if you really want to know the big news, consider the exchange involving 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 kind of alumni a college has:football boosters. Saban didn’t like being out-recruited by Fisher even though “buying players,” though sounding unseemly is totally legal now under what college sports calls the NIL.
It stands for “names, image, and likeness,” the provision under NCAA rules that allows students to profit from their play, essentially making them professional athletes. Under NIL, schools are allowed to recruit high school prospects and promise the moon. Or at least cars, cash and other valued assets that locks up a prospect to a school, until the student is allowed to enter the transfer portal and go to another school bidding for his services through NIL.
This is the new environment and it’s apparently upsetting Saban who now has a lot more competition for young talent. He was just letting his alumni boosters know if they want a winning team, hint, hint, let’s step up the donations. So Saban was using Texas A&M’s Fisher by saying Fisher was “buying every player on their team.” Fisher denied doing anything wrong, but the fact is under NIL (names, image and likeness), it appears to be all on the up and up.
Saban also attacked Sanders, now a coach at an HBCU, for playing by the new NIL rules. Saban said Jackson State paid $1 million to the top recruit in the class of 2022 to sign with Sanders and JSU.
Sanders response: “Coach Saban used me and used Jimbo Fisher as pawns in his plea for help from his booster and his donors.”
Beyond the coaches, Saban caught heat from the SEC for his comments, apparently it’s an ethics violation to talk smack about other coaches. But the conference said nothing about NIL activity, which isn’t against any rules, at least not yet. Still, I bet many people weren’t aware of how the NIL provisions are changing college sports. Is it corrupting it? You mean more than it is already? If anything, NIL is providing a frame work to make things a bit more transparent. No more secret money deals from alumni to athletes.
Now it’s a real pay day for the folk who’ve been exploited for years? That would be students with exceptional athletic skills, who are otherwise disadvantaged economically in every other way. And a large majority are people of color. This is the upgrade of the athletic scholarship. And in many ways the new price of diversity. Yes, there will still be the standard scholarship for athletes who will get tuition, room and board.
Or maybe just tuition.
But for the high school standouts who are pegged to be future stars, the price of play just went up. And you might say its about time. Because the big money of college sports has always enriched universities and coaches like Saban for too long. They get paid big-time while the students get exploited for peanuts.
That’s why NIL exists to acknowledge that the students deserved a little more than an embrace for their love of the game. Now some players will get paid in proportion to their value to a school. It’s called fairness. And what about love of learning, of college of higher ed? That’s why NIL is the reality check. Do the NIL rules need changing? Is it too much reality for folks? Or just right?
Saban’s outburst just let everyone know how it’s working in practice. It’s a landmark for how this has become perhaps the real business of higher ed these days--where football is the big dog, and the ivory tower 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