By now, unless you live under a rock, you’re aware that Nick Saban went scorched-earth on Texas A&M and its head coach Jimbo Fisher for alleged wrongdoings in regard to the use (or misuse) of name-image-likeness (NIL) rules on the way to filling out its most recent recruiting class. The question is why.
Nick Saban rarely does anything that isn’t calculated and thought-through. It’s for that reason that his one “moment of weakness,” if you want to call it that, was when he mishandled his exit from the Miami Dolphins following the 2006 NFL season on his way to return to college football. Painted into a corner by the Miami press, Saban overcommitted himself to the Dolphins in his statements, and paid a heavy price for it when he ultimately chose to take the Alabama job.
It would be the last time anyone in the media ever got the chance to exact a pound of flesh for any public missteps on Saban’s part.
Which is why Saban’s statements the last couple of days regarding Texas A&M and its head coach were so out of left field, even brazen. Saban is the master of saying a lot while poking around the edges of an issue. He rarely goes full-on confrontational, in part because he never seems to get a fair shake from a media that after 16 years, is still determined to make him pay for the way he left the Dolphins – even though Dolphins ownership was fully understanding of whatever gaffes he might have committed back then.
Saban has been on a crusade this year against unfettered abuse of NIL rules by some schools that, desperate to lift themselves from mediocrity, have thrown caution – and the NCAA rulebook – to the wind. Chief among those was Texas A&M, whose performance on National Signing Day was so out of bounds that even the most Aggie-sympathetic members of the national media knew what was up, and said something about it. But no one did anything about it, and Saban ultimately got tired of playing nice.
NIL protocol is in a state of insanity right now because the NCAA underestimated the nation’s courts’ desire to effect change within the world of amateurism, and overestimated its own influence and respect with those same courts. The problem was exacerbated by weak leadership from Mark Emmert and general befuddlement from university presidents over the courts’ desire to even get involved in the issue in the first place. It was the perfect intersection of defiance, incompetency and a general lack of understanding of corporeality that institutions of higher learning are often infamous for displaying. The result was the NCAA was caught flat-footed, and a highly (but ineffectually) regulated college sports world was turned on its ear, and now resembles something of a mashup of the American Wild West and Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of “A Clockwork Orange.”
Saban’s initial forays into the topic minced words a bit, as he attempted to say something without having to say all of it. The result was poor treatment from a media whose job it should be to understand issues. Instead of a holistic look at the college athletic system and how it differs from professional leagues, we got ham-handed responses like the one from Yahoo’s Shalise Manza Young, slamming Saban at the time for trying to control the players and protect his own acre, rather than actually taking the time to understand what Saban was trying to say about amateurism, the influence of boosters, and – ironically enough given the topics Young tends to write about – inequity in how NIL was positively affecting some players while negatively affecting others.
The one thing Nick Saban won’t allow is to get himself boxed in, so after a few months of beating his head against the wall, he unleashed hell on Texas A&M and Fisher, who rather predictably called his own press conference in response, where he clumsily denied knowledge of how NIL worked, made the issue ultra-personal with Saban, and generally came across looking like a cornpone caricature, which anyone who has followed Fisher for any amount of time recognizes as him simply being squarely on-brand. Fisher became the embodiment of comedian Ron White’s bit where he imitates Foghorn Leghorn, and no one from Texas A&M stopped him until he had thoroughly messed in his kit.
That led to the SEC’s Greg Sankey doing his best Sheriff Behan, slapping both Saban and Fisher on their wrists after the fact because he had previously ignored the gunfight brewing behind the scenes.
Anyone who thinks Saban accidentally brought all this about simply doesn’t know how Saban works. Saban followed up with an apology later for specifically identifying Texas A&M in his remarks, but there was likely nothing accidental about it. His unexpected and dead-bang description of the Aggie program and NIL in general put a laser focus on the issue that a lot of national media had probably ignored thanks to Fisher’s almost criminal level of underachievement while leading the A&M program. On top of that, he baited Fisher into a battle of wits in the press, and got a rather predictable outcome from that tactical maneuver, to the point that if Fisher continues to fight this war, he’s going to find himself suffering the same fate as of Gen. John Burgoyne at the Battle of Saratoga. He just hasn’t figured it out yet.
Meanwhile, Saban’s lie-down-in-the-road moment may finally bring some real attention to the problem at hand. Fisher’s comments were so laughable that even with him playing the role of offended victim, most of the national media saw right through his threadbare defense of Texas A&M’s NIL collective. Saban’s claim this whole time has been that collectives are rife for corruption (which they are), turn college sports into an even less-regulated and far less equitable version of the NFL at its historically lowest nadir (which they do), and are unsustainable (which will ultimately prove to be true). The NCAA has been fretting over the knitting ever since the courts more or less struck down much of the rulebook dealing with the concept of amateurism; perhaps now the NCAA brass – and whoever takes over for the ineffectual Emmert – will understand that this is a fight it must stage, painful as it might prove to be, regardless of how certain media members choose to ignore reality in favor of their own anti-institutional biases.
It might be that the NCAA has to yield on its greatest fear of all to this point – a collective bargaining agreement and/or some type of players’ union – in exchange for a well-regulated playing field. But the alternative is finding itself overrun by rich, meddling boosters, who long ago decided that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing under the table.
Some observers pondered whether Saban spoke out of frustration and might be ready to hang up his whistle and exit the sport rather than watch it devolve into bald-faced corruption and scurrilous behavior from adults who too often vicariously plant their self-worth in the grounds of amateur athletics. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true: Saban may believe he is the one that must stand in the gap and defend what the sport has been for more than a century rather than what it is threatening to disintegrate into as a result of NCAA inaction.
And if the latter is true, the NCAA, the SEC and Texas A&M should probably ready themselves for round two.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN