Santa already paid his visit to college athletes this year

by | Dec 19, 2021 | Comment, Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

I know the real Christmas is later this week, but another Christmas arrived this past July.

The one for college athletes.

On July 1, the NCAA began permitting college athletes to make money off their name, image and likeness. Nicknamed “NIL,” the rule has, quite simply, changed college sports forever.

You want to do a commercial now? Go for it. You want to get paid for a podcast? Talk away. You want money for showing up somewhere, pumping up a party, endorsing a cologne, wearing a certain clothing or jewelry line? Sky’s the limit.

And some athletes went straight to the stratosphere.

Bryce Young, the quarterback for Alabama who just won the Heisman Trophy, reportedly had nearly $1 million in NIL deals before he ever took a snap this season.

Hercy Miller, a freshman basketball player for Tennessee State (and the son of rapper Master P), signed a $2 million deal with a tech company before he ever took a dribble.

The Brigham Young football team received an offer by Built Bar (a protein bar company) to pay the full scholarships plus $1,000 for every walk-on player to make the squad.

And recently a group of boosters at the football-crazy University of Texas promised every offensive lineman $50,000 per year. Offensive linemen? The guys who block thanklessly and whose faces are almost never known?

Yep. Now, as 18 year-olds, they can instantly earn more than the median income for full-time U.S. workers.

Merry Christmas, fellas.

Welcome to free agency

Now, before we go any further, I am not one of those people who thinks coaches and universities should reap countless millions from big-time college sports while the players make nothing. The whole system is malignant with crazy salaries, insane TV money and immeasurable booster cash. It’s hypocritical to think the athletes earning a dollar should be against the rules (as it had been for decades.)

Nor do I believe that coaches should be able to jump schools whenever they want while players have to stay put (like Brian Kelly recently did, hopping from Notre Dame to LSU before the season was even over.)

But those old rules are gone. Players can now make what they want through outside income. And thanks to the transfer portal, they can switch schools at least once without sitting out a year. They are free to make money and be as mobile as the people who make money from their talent.

And what has it gotten us?

Lane Kiffin, the Ole Miss coach, told the media it was “free agency.”

Dabo Swinney, the Clemson coach, labeled it, “Chaos.”

Gene Chizik, who used to coach Auburn, tweeted out “Most $$$ wins.”

They may be coaches — and very rich coaches — but that doesn’t make them wrong.

A new school spirit

The new normal is chaotic. It may soon be “Most $$$ wins.” And it IS essentially free agency, except free agents, in pro sports, sign contracts. College players can actually transfer once wherever they are wooed — and in many cases where they’ll get paid — without regard to the team that recruited them. This was the inevitable result of the “equity” that college football players and their legal supporters demanded.

But did anyone really think that once that equity arrived, things wouldn’t get as screwed up on the players level as much as they have been on the coaches’ level?

Did anyone think that boosters would control themselves once the doors were unlocked? That the potential for big, easy money (putting your face on a billboard) wouldn’t be used as a recruiting tool?

Oh sure, as Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher told an interviewer, a coach can’t exactly say “I’m gonna get you an NIL deal. That’s illegal.” But as he added, laughing, “there were a lot of NIL deals going on before all this … they just weren’t legal.”

Now they are. And players know where the money is. If an offensive tackle is considering some school where only the quarterback has been handsomely paid, versus Texas where he knows there’s $50,000 waiting for him, which program do you think he’ll choose?

Just as owners in professional sports can’t control themselves when outbidding for talent, neither will boosters, and universities that encourage them, control themselves. It’s only a matter of time before it’s common knowledge which schools have the best NIL situations. 

And of course, when you’re only paying some guys and not others, how well does that sit in a locker room where everyone is supposed to be “part of the team”?

The net result of all of this? Well, it’s something massive. Something rich. Something entertaining, confusing and news-making. It may even be something occasionally great.

I just don’t think we should call it “college sports.”

There’s nothing collegiate about it.

What happened to the old college try?

College is, by definition, a place to attend school for a period of time with the goal of earning a degree. What we have now, particularly with football and basketball, are multi-billion dollar entertainment engines that just happen to be attached to college campuses.

They are, for top players, like minor leagues franchises. Sure, the big money isn’t going to everyone. But that’s what skewers the whole thing. And what will create animosity between players and sports.

I would have preferred a sizable share of the school’s TV revenue, allowing every player to get the same amount for busting his or her butt while trying to remain academically eligible.

Instead, we have a system where a cornerback might make nothing, but his quarterback earns a million a year. Or where a highly recruited point guard who loses the starting position simply jumps to another school, taking the starting position away from someone else, who then jumps himself.

You can call that free market, fair labor, musical chairs, whatever. But it bears little resemblance to what college sports once implied, a recreational activity that students played to represent their school, forge friendships, and feel part of something bigger than one person.

Merry Christmas, college athletes. You’ve earned the right to be compensated. But it should come with a new name. There’s already a word for when football means million-dollar deals, coaches jumping ship, players signing with the highest bidder, and nobody really caring about what jersey they’re wearing one year versus the other.

It’s called the NFL.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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