Are you a college football fan? This is the south so for the vast majority the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Then my recommendation is to enjoy it now because it may not exist in five years. At least not as it has been the last few decades. The combination of the transport portal and the new NIL rules (or lack thereof) threatens the future of college football.
For those who do not completely understand the two concepts, the transport portal has created an untethered free agency and the NIL (Names, Image and Likeness) has opened the door for players to openly receive money which had previously been absolutely forbidden for NCAA athletes. While benefitting some of the athletes, both these new developments are harming the sport itself.
The transfer portal is problematic in its own right, because 18-21-year-olds tend to take the path of least resistance rather than work hard and dedicate themselves to the task at hand. In the past, if a particular player found himself on the second or third string they worked and practiced hard to win that starting spot making themselves and the team better. Now, for many players, if they aren’t getting exactly what they want at one school they will enter the transfer portal and run off to another school only to find that there is competition there as well and they are often still relegated to the bench. Do not fault the players. Their situation within the confines of college football are just a microcosm of society in general. We have become an instant gratification species. This condition is further aggravated by the recruiting process where dozens of coaches tell these players how wonderful they are for years leading up to signing day and then put them on the practice squad. And now, players can be offered NIL money to transfer. The list of names in the transfer portal is staggering although many of these players will never actually leave the school where they are currently on scholarship. The transfer portal has been in existence for a few years now and has mostly been little more than an irritant to college football coaches as well as a boon to some.
Now let’s introduce the NIL process. The NCAA rulebook has long held a myriad of rules preventing players from receiving virtually any compensation. And for decades players and player advocates have complained that it was unfair for school athletic departments to be making millions of dollars while the players received only a college scholarship. As the debate raged on the NCAA was under more and more pressure to address an unbalanced compensation process where coaches signed contracts for millions of dollars only to break that contract when a better opportunity arose while players were forced to sit out a year if they wanted to change schools and were told not only were they not going to be compensated in a manner commensurate with the coaches but also could not get paid outside of college football for anything relating to the game. If a player signed his name on a card or jersey and received any compensation for that he was immediately ineligible to play. While this sounds unfair, there was a very good reason for the rules. Schools and boosters of schools would use any opportunity to pay a player to play at their school. It still went on under the table and everyone knew but could rarely prove anything. And while it probably happened to some extent at most schools one need only look at the schools that were signing top classes to guess which schools were doing it the most. Of course, fans of those school will claim their coaches are just great recruiters. If mankind is good at anything it is rationalizing preferred behavior.
Facing a handful of lawsuits with multiple more on the horizon, the NCAA decided to approve what is now referred to as NIL. It allowed players to receive compensation for their name, image or likeness. What the NCAA envisioned was players getting paid a relatively modest sum to do an ad on local television or radio for a car dealership or maybe getting paid per autograph at signing sessions to draw attention to small businesses or charities. Of course, anyone with a brain knew that some schools and boosters would abuse the process. However, even the most suspicious of us were shocked at how quickly it spiraled out of control. In just two short years players were receiving promises of hundreds of thousands of dollars. This immediately found its way into the recruiting process and with a void of understandable rules things accelerated quickly. Collectives popped up around a lot of schools to aid in the process of arranging NIL opportunities. While everyone knew deep down that this was going to become a problem, nobody knew exactly what to do about that problem. Soon there were cries of outrage by coaches and athletic directors leading as far as a request to congress to step in and regulate the NIL programs. Several coaches have become quite vocal in their opposition to NIL as it stands now. It is my opinion that at least a few of those coaches screaming the loudest are the ones who were violating the recruiting rules all along and are now upset that everyone can openly compensate recruits leveling the field somewhat. So where does it go from here?
The current situation is unsustainable. It is that simple. College football cannot survive an environment where boosters are paying players hundreds of thousands of dollars if they will sign with a particular school. Many schools lack the type of boosters who are either financially capable or inclined to invest that kind of money into their passion for their school. Schools like Georgia Tech simply do not have alumni who feel motivated to put millions into the athletic endeavors of their alma mater. One of the reasons the Yellow Jackets struggle to recruit at the same level as instate rival Georgia is that Tech’s athletic department does not receive the kind of donations available to the Bulldogs. Thus, the facilities on North Avenue are woefully behind the schools they recruit against. Based on this criteria, it is unlikely that Georgia Tech will have boosters willing to offer the kind of NIL opportunities other schools within the ACC or in the south will offer. The rich will get richer.
Barring congressional intervention, what can be done. Probably very little. This particular genie will be very difficult to put back in the bottle. The NCAA has threatened to implement rules and even punish violations retroactively. Good luck with that. The NCAA has found it nearly impossible to enforce the rules actually on the books without facing lawsuits. There is little chance that enforcing violations of rules that either did not exist or were not properly communicated at the time will succeed. There have been suggestions of making college football players employees of the school and paying them. Sounds good in theory but that would not prevent boosters of also using the NIL platform to entice recruits. Also, many schools could not afford this. It is a popular myth that all these schools turn a huge profit on athletics, but it simply is not true. Many schools barely break even or actually lose money when it is all said and done. Sure, the big schools of the Power 5 conferences turn large profits, but they are the exception not the rule.
What happens if nothing changes? What if they just leave things as they are? As I said before, this is unsustainable. Within a few years some schools will begin to drop their football programs. Some schools will drop their entire athletic departments and revert back to intramural sports. Many will cite inability to keep up financially. A few will state that this has become professional sports and that is not what institutes of advance learning should be involved in or promoting. Either way the number of schools participating in college football as we know it will dwindle. It is possible that a handful of super-conferences will emerge and divest themselves of any relationship to the NCAA. That is if they can avoid eating their own first. Coaches are already at each other’s throats with threats of revealing what each knows about the other’s recruiting violations both past and present. If this continues it could eventually kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. And all of this is without even given consideration to the problems that will arise from 18-21 year olds suddenly having huge sums of money.
Yes folks, college football is at a crossroad and the future of this once beloved sport is absolutely in danger. As with everything in this world, money is threatening to corrupt the entire sport. Enjoy it while you can. You may be watching its collapse.