Sometimes, things that seem like great ideas turn out not to be so great after all. All too often, there are unexpected and unintended consequences. So it is in college football, a game that has grown from a regional pastime to a massively popular and lucrative undertaking.
Meanwhile, at the highest level, head football and basketball coaches have gone from university employees making good livings to making generational fortunes. Assistant coaches who not so very long ago frequently needed their wives to work to make ends meet, now make substantial salaries of their own. Coordinators frequently are paid seven figures.
Three changes in recent years have had significant impacts on the sport, those who play it, those who coach it, those who talk about it and those of us who write about it. Most of those changes were well-intentioned. Consider:
EARLY SIGNING PERIOD
The idea behind allowing prospects to sign in December was to allow those who had already made up their minds to be able to sign instead of waiting until February. What it quickly became was the main signing period, which doesn’t sound so bad.
But it also resulted in coaches losing their jobs during seasons so a search could begin and a coach could be in place to rescue a recruiting class. That wasn’t necessary when the only signing day was in February.
Well-informed presidents and administrators recognize what needs to be done. But some don’t. Two years ago, Auburn president Jay Gogue refused to even discuss the possibility of moving on Gus Malzahn before the end of the season, broke from the plan after Malzahn was fired and would not listen to pleas of what that could cause. As a result, signing day came and went while Auburn had an interim coach. You can count on that not happening this time.
It was always absurd that head coaches could tell a player who wanted to leave where he could go or, more specifically, where he couldn’t go.
When running back Corey Grant decided after one season at Alabama that he wanted to transfer to Auburn, Alabama coach Nick Saban refused to release him. Grant transferred anyway, which according to the rules at the time, meant he had to pay his own way. His family could do that. That is not true of most college football players. Regardless, players who transferred had to sit out a season unless that got a hardship waiver.
Instead of just doing away with the “release” rule, the NCAA went further. Players could transfer one time without penalty. Even those who transfer more than once usually don’t sit out. Waivers are easily obtained. The NCAA doesn’t want to be sued.
The result is mass movement between programs. Coaches don’t know from one season to the next what their rosters will look like.
NAME, IMAGE AND LIKENESS
When NIL went into effect, it was meant to allow players to make some extra money by signing autographs, making public appearances and the like. I don’t know how many times I heard it would only affect a small number of elite players. I knew better, and anybody who pays attention to college football should have known better, too.
It quickly became open season. Programs couldn’t contribute to NIL, so collectives were born. It’s open-season now. That’s a good thing for players who are getting money, but it has shaken the foundation of college athletics, particularly football and basketball.
The problem is that it is not sustainable. If a program needs, say, $10 million to fill its needs in a given year, collectives try to raise the money. If they do it, they’ll have to raise that much or more the next year. Donations are not tax deductible. Other than helping a team get enough players to win, there are no real benefits for the donors, who are mostly anonymous.
What’s next? In the major conferences, especially the SEC and Big Ten, it will probably be players getting a cut of the TV money. That makes sense, but figuring out how to do it will be quite a challenge.
Programs would have the ability to require of players what they do of coaches. They could say to share in the TV money, players would have to sign their promotional rights over to the program. Otherwise, giving them a cut of the TV money would not change NIL.
Will there be a players’ union of some sort? That will be more difficult than some imagine. More than 5,500 players are on Power 5 football scholarships. More than 11,000 are on FBS scholarships. Pulling all those players together would be quite difficult.
Today, the NCAA is still in charge, though the Power 5 programs are moving rapidly toward running controlling their own affairs outside the NCAA structure. There is little appetite for doing away with the NCAA altogether.
Where will it all lead? No one can say, but this much is certain. There will be no taking back of rights granted unless those rights are replaced with something even more appealing. Will college football keep its special identity or will it become semipro football that operates like a minor-league version of the NFL?
For now, the game on the field is as compelling as ever. It will be even more compelling in a couple of years when the College Football Playoff expands to 12 teams. But what will the game look like 20 years, 10 years, even five years from now?
Even as TV money falls like rain on the most powerful conferences in the game, there is no sign of that uncertainty going away anytime soon.