ATLANTA — Nick Saban began his session at SEC media days by lamenting the fact that when he’s on vacation, he’s the prisoner of his wife’s to-do list — sweep, mop, take out the garbage. Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin showed up for his session proudly open-collared and without a tie, even though every other coach has always worn one.
These are men who crave control in every phase of their lives, not just their work. In the vast new landscape of NIL, they’re seeing the limits of their control, and they’re fighting back against their dwindling influence.
“I don't dislike name, image and likeness. I'm all for the players. I want our players to do well,” Saban said at his Tuesday morning session. “But there's got to be some uniformity and protocol of how name, image and likeness is implemented.”
Saban offhandedly noted that his Alabama players made $3 million in NIL revenues last year; Heisman trophy winner Bryce Young alone may have accounted for as much as a third of that. It’s a substantial total — $3 million more than players were (legally) receiving the prior year, of course — but it’s a small fraction of the $9.75 million Saban earned in salary last year.
The $3 million figure, Saban said, was the highest in college football last season — which may or may not be true, given the breadth of booster collectives now pooling funds for players — but it’s also likely to look as minuscule as pro athletes’ salaries of prior decades. Texas Tech announced Monday afternoon that its donors’ collective would sign up to 100 players to $25,000 annual deals, a total potential outlay of $2.5 million for that single endeavor alone.
That volume of money flowing, uncontrolled and unmonitored, into the Venmo accounts of college players — and through the hands of those entrusted to handle those funds — is what troubles college coaches, both because of the effect on the players themselves and, more importantly, the potential for even further disruption of the imbalance that already exists in college football.
“It's like a payroll in baseball. What teams win over a long period of time? Teams that have high payrolls and can pay players a lot. We're in a situation not any different than that,” Kiffin said. “I said day one, you legalize cheating, so get ready for the people that have the most money to get players. Now you have it. It is what it is.”
The rhetorical counterargument — if it’s legalized, it’s not cheating anymore — doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the gates are now wide open for money that might not have flowed into an underground economy. In the same way that legalization of sports gambling draws in new waves of gamblers, NIL gives a wider range of boosters a new, direct way to funnel money into their beloved program.
More money, more people, less control. It’s no surprise that coaches are regarding this new NIL landscape with a skeptical eye.
“The biggest concern is how does this impact and affect recruiting?” Saban said. “On the recruiting trail right now, there's a lot of people using this as inducements to go to their school by making promises as to whether they may or may not be able to keep in terms of what players are doing.”
“If you have boosters out there deciding who they're going to pay to come play, and the coach isn't involved in it, how does that work?” Kiffin said. “They could go pick who they want, pay him however much. Are the boosters going to tell you who to play, too? When they don't play, how is that going to work out?”
Both men framed their objections as questions, but both have an answer: more regulation, more oversight, more coach involvement in the NIL process.
“Ideally, if we're going to be in an NIL world,” Kiffin said, “it's going to get capped so that there's some way of controlling it and keeping playing fields close to the same. Otherwise, you're just going to have these glaring differences within Division I football. … Ideally I would think that the coach should be part of managing that.”
“There is no competitive sport anywhere that doesn't have guidelines on how they maintain some kind of competitive balance,” Saban said. “That's why they have rules in the NFL where you have a salary cap, you have difficult schedules if you have a successful season, you draft later if you have a successful season, you draft early if you have an unsuccessful season.”
Saban understands exactly how Alabama, of all teams, complaining about an unfair state of play comes across. So he framed his comments in a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats way, saying that NIL oversight would “create a competitive balance issue between the haves and have nots. We're one of the haves. Don't think that what I'm saying is a concern that we have at Alabama because we're one of the haves.”
It’s a compelling pair of arguments —we’re advocating regulation for the good of the game, and we’re just trying to protect the players — except both arguments sidestep the fact that pro athletes’ endorsement income isn’t counted against a salary cap. One year from now, Bryce Young will be able to sign whatever endorsement deals he wants, and not one nickel will count against the cap of whichever NFL team drafts him.
Kiffin’s concerns about overly optimistic agents filling a player’s head with dreams of playing time would hold more weight if coaches on the recruiting trail hadn’t already been doing exactly that since recruiting began. Fears of unscrupulous boosters or unethical money managers taking advantage of unaware and overwhelmed families are a problem — but again, that’s always been a problem in college athletics, just not an above-board one.
One potential form of salvation comes right from Saban’s own defense. Earlier this year, linebacker Will Anderson, a potential 2022 Heisman candidate, created the agency A3 with the express purpose of aiding players in navigating the complex world of NIL.
“I don’t know too much about NIL, I just know the deals I get help me and my family,” he said with a laugh. “With the whole NIL thing, it was kind of overwhelming at first, because you don’t know a lot of the verbiage and terminology when it comes to deals. So with A3, it’s going to help players such as myself, and younger players under me, come together with my advisory team to help go over contracts to take the load off your family to read over everything that’s going on.”
Over and above all the discussion about whether NIL is or isn’t ruining college athletics is this: It’s a marketplace, and a marketplace functions on demand. A player might get an NIL deal to join a team, but if he doesn’t perform, further deals aren’t likely to materialize. It’s why Young says he keeps his focus on what got him here.
“The biggest thing for me is having priorities,” he said. “Making sure the main thing is the main thing, making sure that whatever’s best for the team comes first, and whatever’s best for the individual, NIL-wise, comes second to that.”