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Letting Student Athletes Make Money Is Already Destroying College Football

Recent changes to rules about the transfer portal and paying student athletes threaten to destroy the sport.

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When the 2022 college football recruiting season officially ended on National Signing Day earlier this month, the most entertaining storyline came from the always unpredictable and often incendiary Coach Lane Kiffin of Ole Miss. In a post-signing day presser, Kiffin took a jab at Texas A&M’s top-rated class.

“I joked I didn’t know if Texas A&M incurred a luxury tax with how much money they paid for their signing class,” Kiffin said, according to a report from Sports Illustrated.

Jimbo Fisher, the head coach of Texas A&M, didn’t appreciate Kiffin’s joke. Fisher called Kiffin and other critics “clown acts” and complained that “the guys griping about NIL [“name, image, and likeness”] and transfer portal, are using it the most. That’s the ironic part. It does piss me off.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body of college athletics, had previously banned NIL payments to student athletes in an effort to keep college sports amateur. However, NIL laws began taking effect last year in several states, requiring that student athletes be allowed to make money off their name, image, and likeness, just like professional athletes.

A unanimous Supreme Court ruling in June 2021 also held that restrictions by the NCAA on “education-related benefits” violated antitrust law. In response to the new laws and ruling, the NCAA stopped restricting payments for NIL deals.

Like the new NIL rules, changes to the transfer portal have caused some upheaval. The previous rule stated that when an athlete transferred to another school he or she couldn’t play for one academic year. This resulted in most student-athletes beginning and ending their college careers at the same school. The transfer rules recently changed, allowing student-athletes to transfer once without sitting out a year, and, consequently, rosters are now much more fluid.

Further Advantage to Wealthy Teams

To Kiffin’s point, these rule changes give the teams with the most money even more of an advantage than they already had. The schools aren’t paying the players directly, but its wealthy boosters pay players through local businesses or nonprofits.

For example, according to Sports Illustrated, all scholarship offensive linemen at the University of Texas are offered $50,000 per year to be spokesmen for the nonprofit Horns with Heart. Why would a top-rated offensive linemen go anywhere else?

But $50,000 is peanuts compared to what the most coveted players are making. The Athletic reported last year that Alabama’s Bryce Young was earning nearly $1 million in NIL sponsorships before he had ever played a down. Now imagine players using the new transfer portal rules and the NIL deals in tandem. What if Young could earn $2 million if he transferred to Texas? This could get out of hand quickly.

Aim Was to Avoid Exploitation of Athletes

The purpose of both rule changes was to help student athletes and make sure universities and coaches couldn’t get rich exploiting them. After all, the critics of amateurism complained, it’s not fair that universities and coaches make millions of dollars while the athletes that do all the work make nothing!

It’s not entirely accurate to say the athletes make nothing. For example, tuition at the University of Southern California (USC) costs more than $60,000 a year, which the athletes get for free. They also get free housing, free meals prepared by a professional dietician, a free gym membership with a top-notch personal trainer, free tutoring services, free team gear, bowl swag, and if they want to become professional athletes, the best training that money can buy in their chosen profession.

How much do you think it would cost to hire Jimbo Fisher to teach your son how to quarterback? Still, I understand the frustration when ESPN pays universities billions of dollars.

Here’s the thing, though: most university athletic departments make very little money after expenditures, and at most schools, money earned from football subsidizes the other sports on campus too. According to NCAA research for 2019 — the year prior to the enormous deficits caused by Covid lockdowns — the median deficit for the highest subdivision in college football, the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), was more than $18 million. Even schools in the “Power Five” conferences (ACC, BIG Ten, Big 12, PAC-12, and SEC) ran a median deficit of nearly $7 million.

Sure, they bring in millions of dollars in TV contracts and ticket sales, but it costs a lot of money to maintain facilities, pay for staff, and fly teams all over the country. Big programs may have athletic budgets in the black, but smaller programs rarely do. While the University of Alabama’s athletic budget normally ran a surplus prior to Covid, the University of Cincinnati, the team Alabama beat in the 2021 playoff, accumulated a $250 million deficit in the 12 years preceding the lockdowns.

Poaching Coaches

The coaches are another story. Head coaches make obscene amounts of money but have little loyalty to the school. Gone are the days of coaches like Bobby Bowden, who started at my alma mater Florida State (FSU) the year I was born and retired from there the year my son was born — 33 years later.

His successor, the aforementioned Fisher, left FSU after eight seasons as head coach to take the Texas A&M job and a $75 million contract. Louisiana State University gave Brian Kelly a $95 million contract to leave Notre Dame, and Lincoln Riley abandoned Oklahoma for a contract with USC reportedly worth $110 million.

The solution to poaching coaches by driving salaries higher and higher is not throwing money at players. That just makes things worse. The beauty of college football has always been that the fans have a connection to the players — a connection they don’t have with NFL players — because college players attend and play for the same school the fans attend and rarely change schools. And they don’t play for the school because they are paid to, but because they want to. But that’s changing now with the new rules, and it will destroy the best thing about college football.  

Blame Fans and Boosters

However, the current problems threatening the sport are not with the rules themselves. The problems come down to the sins of pride, greed, and envy. I’m not talking about the players. We can’t blame the kids for wanting a payday. And we can’t even blame the coaches — at least not entirely.

It is the pride, greed, and envy of the fans and boosters that are most to blame. We have shifted the goal of college athletics from developing young men and women to help build up their community to winning games at all costs.

This really hit home with me back in 2018. Hurricane Michael had just ravaged the gulf coast of Florida. I saw the destruction firsthand when my family drove down from Tallahassee to deliver supplies and feed people, and on church mission teams that helped clean up and repair the damage. The devastation was incredible. Families lost everything.

It was disheartening to read reports that donations for relief were nowhere near where they needed to be and far below donations for previous hurricanes. One month after Michael hit, the Red Cross had reportedly raised just $28.6 million in relief, only half of what it had raised one month after Hurricane Irma, a far less destructive storm.

Simultaneously, FSU boosters were seeking $100 million in donations for athletics, the bulk of which was to build a $60 million football-only facility. While the university did work to help those affected by Michael, including raising more than $150,000 to help affected students, faculty, and staff, the $100 million sought by the boosters seemed excessive in light of the need for hurricane relief.

But we were told this was crucial if we wanted to compete for recruits with the big boys like the University of Alabama (another school in a state affected by Michael), which was raising $600 million for athletic facility upgrades at the same time. In other words, we had to spend this money if we wanted to win.

Unlike the National Football League, where the market dictates how much money teams can afford to spend, a large portion of money for college football comes from donors. And they donate to win! Fans no longer care about forming young men into leaders and productive members of society or teaching student athletes patience, sacrifice, selflessness, and loyalty. In other words, fans no longer care about all the reasons to have college sports to begin with.

The pride, greed, and envy that manifests in the fans has contaminated the entire sport. If a coach doesn’t win immediately, he’s fired. If a school offers a coach more money, he’ll leave. If a player isn’t living up to expectations, he’ll be encouraged to transfer so that room can be made for better players.

There is no loyalty. There is no sacrifice. And the kids have noticed. They want their big payday, too. Who can blame them? They learned it from us. College football is dying a slow death, and it’s all our fault.