I wrote my first article for this website way back in the late winter of 1996, before it was even called TideFans, and one of the hardest things to do over the last 27 years has been to avoid the temptation to talk about the present day inside a frame of the way things used to be.
It is harder at Alabama than at most places, because the way things used to be were pretty good, and not dissimilar to the way things are now. Alabama hasn’t always been at the top of the college football world, but it has been at or near the top so often that to some, it would appear Alabama never left the summit, even when it briefly did.
The recent success of Georgia’s program notwithstanding, Alabama is still the gold standard by which all other programs are measured. It broke away from Notre Dame to become the all-time crown-wearer about the time Nick Saban won his second or third national championship in Tuscaloosa. And even with Georgia holding back-to-back trophies now, Alabama has still been in the Bulldogs’ immediate rear view both times. It is likely, should Alabama win the national championship for the 2023-2024 season, that Georgia will simply swap places with the Crimson Tide. In other words, neither team is going anywhere anytime soon.
But both Georgia and Alabama – along with Oklahoma, Southern Cal, Notre Dame and most if not all of the 120-something other programs that currently make up the Football Bowl Subdivision (there’s an anachronism – “Bowl”) – are together in watching the horizon, because something big is coming up over it. We’ve already seen what it is, but it’s a bit like watching the first alien spaceship arrive in a science fiction movie: There are a lot more probably coming right behind it.
The issue is name-image-likeness (NIL for short) but we haven’t really even seen what that means yet. We might have thought we knew back when the courts finally settled what was a fairly isolated case primarily about video games. Few could have expected where it has gone since then. The challenge NIL brings, though, is existential to what college football is, and more importantly, what it is about to become.
Most everyone by now knows what NIL is at the most basic level, although only a fraction seem to know the legalities of it, and what being in violation of the meager regulations governing it means to concepts like probation and scholarship limits. The everyday fan only wants to know whether NIL will help his team win. The more involved fan wants to know the limitations, and then how to push them at a rate and to a degree further, higher and better than his rivals. Both approaches are short-sighted, however, because the system NIL has created is uncapped, and the governing body that oversees college athletics appears to have no idea how to manage it, let alone stop it.
We live in a world where the college athlete has more freedom than the NFL player in terms of how much money he can make and control of his contract. That’s because the NCAA has allowed itself to get outcornered not just on the issue of NIL, but also the transfer portal. Every time the NCAA tries to limit either, a court strikes it down, so even the current rules about using the portal twice and whether the athlete should sit out a year after multiple uses should be considered rules only insofar as they haven’t yet been fully challenged and adjudicated.
Even more so than in the NFL, where certain franchises always seem to have a leg up on others regardless of what is going on around the league, college football is now in danger of becoming controlled only by those with the most money and/or those who will push the envelope the furthest. The NFL, after all, has a salary cap; there’s absolutely nothing to stop a person or group of people from paying a college team millions or even billions per year to play, other than the amount of money available in the spigot.
The more involved fan, pulling from the example cited a couple of paragraphs earlier, first asks how to use the system better than his rivals. That isn’t the first question that should be asked. The first question is, which programs are capable of spending the kind of money it’s going to take to remain on top of the heap, and beyond having the ability to do so, which programs have enough boosters willing to actually do it?
It’s a systemic issue, because not just football is affected. All sports are affected, both men’s and women’s, and it sets up a potentially competitive scenario even within athletic departments. Will Duke University, for example, push its donors to back the football team or the basketball team should the choice have to be made? Will Alabama, with its newfound prowess on the hardwood under Nate Oats, have enough money to go around once Nick Saban’s football players have been paid?
For that matter, NIL now sets up a competitive structure between player and coach, and university itself. The University of Alabama, like virtually ever other school in the United States, frequently sends out pleas for donations to its general fund. The UA Athletic Department entreats its fans to donate to Tide Pride, Crimson Tide Foundation and other programs that help fund capital campaigns and pay the salaries of the premier coaches the fans demand the school hire. Now throw in NIL – money that will straight-up go into the pockets of the players, with no capital project to point to nor any proven coaches employed. In a way, it is both the most fair and least fair system, all at the same time: The money goes to pay the actual labor, but plenty of players who will never accomplish a thing in their college careers are going to get paid along the way.
And when all three entities – school, coach and player – are beating on the donor’s door at the same time, there’s going to be a limit to how much money each will get.
So there’s a better question – is Alabama positioned at the top of this new mountain of money, or not? The answer is almost assuredly no; Alabama is not a rich state, and while its donors have historically answered the call at a rate better than almost all of its rivals, can it compete long-term with Texas, Notre Dame, or even a program like Miami, which has jumped into the NIL deep end with both feet?
But all of this talk has been focused on how to maintain the status quo, or at least how to keep the train on the tracks without a derailment. We haven’t touched on the future, a future that might save the sport as it is currently known, but also a future that many fans would have recoiled at even considering just a decade ago:
A player’s union, and a collective bargaining agreement.
Until very recently, neither option was palatable to the fan, because it “made college football just like the NFL.” Well, we got here anyway. So now, maybe it’s time to look at how the NFL runs its business and copy it, because the NFL is nothing if not successful.
A collective bargaining agreement does two things: It allows for the setting of a salary cap and/or revenue sharing, and it also puts some rules in place that the courts almost automatically will respect. There’s a reason no high school senior can successfully sue his way into the NFL and must instead attend college for two years – to state it simply, when the union (that a court recognizes as being representative of the labor pool) agrees with the management (i.e., the NFL) about certain things (like a minimum age requirement), the courts and the Department of Labor typically go hands-off from that point forward. In regard to NIL, if a college players’ union and the NCAA were to come to agreement on the financial side of the business, it would at least give the sport structure again – to include having some real punishments on the books with real teeth to them for those that want to skirt the system – rather than let the entire thing function like the Wild Wild West.
So what does that mean for the future? And for Alabama’s future as a program?
With college football having so many teams – more than 130 now in FBS, compared to 32 in the NFL – there would still ultimately be inherent divisions between the haves and the have-nots, but those divisions wouldn’t be as drastic as they are now. The days of dynastic college football would likely be over, and the current model – which sees two to four undefeated teams left standing at the end of the regular season and conference championship games – would almost certainly get rarer. More likely, the playoff would have to expand to 16 or even 32 teams, and the teams at the top of the rankings each regular season would have one and probably two losses over a 12-game regular season, at least. The same top teams wouldn’t be able to afford to stockpile all the top talent. The question would be how to figure individual NIL deals into the salary matrix, so that schools couldn’t avoid paying the players directly and instead have a booster pay them by proxy.
Or, it might just not be salvageable at all. We may be turning a corner that leads to FBS simply becoming a minor league to the NFL’s Major League Baseball. Alabama might find itself permanently attached to the Atlanta Falcons or New Orleans Saints, a triple-A outfit that exists in the same realm as the Gwinnett Stripers or the Iowa Cubs. College teams would become feeders to pro teams, their rosters controlled by their affiliations, with the only difference being the teams would be headquartered on college campuses, with one of the contract benefits being an education.
Of all the possibilities, it’s hardest to imagine the current setup being the one that survives. College athletics has never been clean, anyway, but it’s never been more vulnerable to corruption and rule-skirting than it is today. Even so, there’s one great equalizer to even the most corrupt system: money. When the money runs out, so does the fun. The current system of trying to sustain hundreds of college athletic departments while also paying athletes something substantially more than the value of a scholarship is not viable. The fractures between the haves and have-nots will open into wide crevices before it’s over, and even at the richest schools, there will come a time when the donors say “no more.”
You can either manage change, or be run over by it. Those that run college sports are fast running out of time to have influence over the change that is coming.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN