Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin was half right when he said college football has entered the era of free agency. But it’s worse than even his assessment indicates.
“I don’t think people really say it this way, but let’s not make a mistake: We have free agency in college football,” Kiffin said. “The kids a lot of times go where they get paid the most. No one else is saying that maybe, but kids say, ‘This is what I’m getting here for NIL. Free agency has been created in college football except you can’t lock people into a contract. This is a whole new thing to deal with.”
NIL stands for name, image and likeness. It’s how college coaches and boosters can now pay high school athletes and transfers from other schools to come play for their school.
The idea behind NIL was simple and logical. If you went to a game at Bryant-Denny Stadium before 2008, nobody was wearing a No. 8 jersey. But after Julio Jones arrived from Foley, the jerseys were everywhere. Jones got no cut of the revenue for those jersey sales. So, a reasonable person could argue that in addition to his scholarship, training for a lucrative professional career, food and board, and a full closet of athletic wear, Jones should have also reaped some of the money from those jersey sales.
The same was true for the No. 2 when Cam Newton was at Auburn.
But, of course, that kind of logical compensation was never where the NIL legislation was going to end. Smart people were always going to find a way around the rule to turn college football into a professional league.
The most obvious example is what’s happening at the University of Texas. A NIL deal is in place that pays every Longhorn offensive lineman $50,000 a year to participate in a charity organization called the Pancake Factory. So, while it’s still illegal to pay high school recruits to sign with a particular school, it’s not against the rules to let them know about the Pancake Factory. So, if you sign with Texas as an offensive lineman, you will receive at least $50,000 a year.
At Texas A&M the program is known as AMPLIFY. Auburn has taken a crowdsourcing approach to raising funds to pay Tiger athletes. Nick Saban has vowed that Alabama will have the best program anywhere to benefit Tide athletes in the world of NIL. Does anyone doubt him?
So, yes, free agency has come to college athletics. But there is one major difference between what is happening in college sports and what has been going on in professional sports for 50 years.
In professional sports, when LeBron James decided to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, he got $154 million in exchange for signing a four-year contract.
In college sports, there’s no such thing as a four-year contract. Every athlete is now a free agent at the end of every season. That’s because the new NIL rules came along at the same time the NCAA granted athletes the freedom to transfer from one school to another without having to sit out a year or suffering any other penalty.
That means that college football has already seen the rich getting richer with players like Henry To’oto’o leaving Tennessee for Alabama.
But now the rich doesn’t just refer to teams like Alabama that are rich in tradition and recent success on the field. The term now also literally refers to the rich who can offer the most financial incentive for a high school player or transfer to come join their teams.
“It (National Signing Day) is basically your draft class, but then you have your free agent class,” Kiffin said. “You can just talk about what people have gotten, but we can’t direct that. We’re not going to sit here and make promises that you’re going to make this much money because once they’re signed, they’re not getting the money. We’re kind of staying out of that world that other people are going into.”
That’s a noble stance. It’s one that Kiffin will soon realize is unrealistic if the Rebels are ever going to be competitive in the SEC in the age of free agency.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 19 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. His sports talk show airs weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on Sports Talk 99.5 and the free iHeart radio app.
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