The Two Problems of College Football Are Not What They Seem

Problems of College Football
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 23: Quarterbacks Caleb Williams #13 talks with head coach Lincoln Riley during the 2022 USC Spring Football game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on April 23, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

The last 12 months have shone some light on some problems of college football. Traditionalists and modernists alike bemoan the legalization of college athletes getting to profit off themselves and, essentially, have the same rights as coaches.

As with literally everything in this world, these problems of college football are not cut and dry, black and white. They’re nuanced. Blowing our lids is a major overreaction to what would have been a normal addition to the great sport and is not how the sport moves forward. “College football is dead” is a popular sentiment, but how true is that?

The Two Problems of College Football Are Not What They Seem

1.) NIL Running Rampant

Name, Image, and Likeness. Also known as being able to profit off of oneself. In its purest form, it allows athletes to get paid for autographs and sign endorsement deals. It provides athletes with the same rights as other “normal” college students and coaches all while maintaining the label of amateurism. Ideally, it’s about shifting the power from the schools and the NCAA to the students. Each year, schools and the NCAA make millions upon millions of dollars off the backs of unpaid college athletes.

It’s not just college football players who are benefiting, of course. Paige Bueckers from UCONN’s women’s basketball team is in line to make nearly $63,000 per social media post. She could earn significantly more than her male counterparts. Again, in its purest form, NIL is about allowing college athletes to profit off of the one thing that is completely theirs: themselves.

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But, Isn’t It Bribery?

There have been a number of cases where a high school athlete selected one school over another due to an NIL deal. The first one that comes to mind is Quinn Ewers. Ewers committed, reclassified, and enrolled at Ohio State to take advantage of a massive NIL deal which was not an option back home in Texas. Immediately following the Buckeyes’ season, Ewers transferred back home to Texas to play for the Longhorns. Was the next great Buckeyes quarterback lured away for even more money?

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USC, with Lincoln Riley at the helm, has seen a gargantuan upswell of hype around the program thanks to transfers and recruiting with NIL at the center. Even at the end of the Transfer Portal window for this year, USC was linked to landing the potential transfer of the 2021 Biletnikoff winner, Jordan Addison. Texas A&M managed to persuade 30 recruits — eight five-stars and 19 four-stars to boot — to join a seemingly up-and-coming program. Now, how could a program that hasn’t even won a divisional title since 2010 nor a conference title since 1998 when they were part of the Big 12 manage to out-recruit teams that are actually good?

The NIL markets have been booming and wealthy benefactors have helped pull recruits and transfers alike. Especially with these two cases, many cry “bribery!” If these athletes are being bribed, each school is doing its due diligence to make sure it’s not officially so. At the same time, can these two schools seriously out-bribe schools that have had actual success in the past decade? Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, and Oklahoma (to an extent) all have the resources to lure athletes in this capacity.

Nobody will catch this writer defending either USC or Texas A&M. However if you’re a proponent of the “free market,” this is how things play out.

It’s Not Perfect

No system will ever be perfect. Should college athletes have a salary cap of sorts? Realistically, no. Who are we, as out-of-shape couch coaches, to say 2021 Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young has to take a pay cut? Honestly, a salary cap is not the way.

If there is going to be any attempt at rectifying the insanity that has gone on, the only way would be to fix the process. Legislate that no NIL deals can be signed or even discussed until the athlete is committed to their respective school. Discussing NIL endorsements before pen hits paper could be considered bribery. “Hey, kid! Come play for us and we’ll pay you a million bucks!”

At the same time, athletes need to learn financial literacy. The overwhelming majority of NFL players end up bankrupt within a few years after retirement. Does anyone think an 18-year-old with generational wealth is going to be any better at managing their money? Absolutely not. College athletes who sign NIL deals must have some kind of financial advisor.

Take Justyn Ross for example. If NIL were a thing five years ago, he would have been able to cash in on an NIL deal after his monster freshman year. Fast forward to today, he missed time due to injury and surgery and signed an UDFA deal. That’s millions of dollars gone. Ross could be considered lucky. There will be plenty of athletes who sign NIL deals early, flame out in college, and that’s it. They need to be protected from themselves, essentially.

2.) Transfer Portal Insanity

The second of the problems of college football is the bane of every college football traditionalist. The Transfer Portal has blown up in the last year. As of April 25th, the number of college football athletes in the Portal has risen by nearly 60% from 896 in 2021 to 1,427. Just 59% of scholarship athletes found, committed, and enrolled at a new school leaving hundreds of athletes in a sort of college football purgatory.

Is this a case of player greed or is there something else at play?

COVID.

The NCAA granted college athletes a free year of eligibility for the 2020 season, effectively prolonging some athletes’ careers. If a 2020 freshman played every year, he would be able to play for five years instead of the usual four. Now factor in redshirt years. And medical redshirts/grayshirts. Some players have been able to be on scholarship for six or seven years. You think that might have something to do with the seemingly insane number of athletes in The Portal?

While what the NCAA did to allow athletes to not count 2020 as a year of eligibility, they royally messed up by not messing with the allotted scholarship numbers. Ohio State for the 2022 season, for example, has 21 incoming freshmen, three players who transferred in, and 20 players to transfer out. They had to, essentially, trade 20 of their athletes for new players because they have to adhere to the NCAA’s 85 scholarship rule.

The NCAA won’t fix this. However, what they should have done is expand the allotted number of scholarship players and then gradually decrease them until 2025 when things SHOULD be back to normal, athletically. Players aren’t transferring willy-nilly. Coaches and players have had to have multiple difficult conversations about their place on the team that is overflowing. The NCAA allowed the reservoir to fill up to the top and spill over all without working to build up the walls.

The influx of college athletes into the Transfer Portal is less about greedy athletes as it is a consequence of the NCAA (partially) doing the right thing in the face of a cataclysmic event.

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The Implications of Change

Players are transferring to larger schools to cash in on NIL endorsements. Players are transferring schools after a year to get playing time. Oh, the humanity! What’s next, a select few programs are going to experience sustained success? There won’t be much parity in the game?

Since Nick Saban came to Alabama, just how many National Championships has he won? Six. How many of the remaining titles were won by an SEC school? Five. That leaves one for Florida State, one for Ohio State, and two for Clemson. In that same time frame, how many Big Ten titles has Ohio State brought home? Eight. How many ACC titles has Clemson won? Seven, all since 2011.

There has never truly been parity in college football. If anything, players may get to transfer to a smaller school or one that has not had sustained success to lift them out of their slums. USC and Texas, while they may be considered bluebloods, have been sorry excuses for programs over the past decade or so. Each has benefited from both “problems”. Ole Miss and South Carolina beefed up their rosters with the second and sixth-best transfer class to contend in the SEC.

All in all, the problems of college football cannot be boiled down to two things. NIL and The Transfer Portal are the new way of doing things in college football. Every change in the game has been met with the exact same outrage. Allowing Black players to play, allowing freshmen to play, allowing any kind of transfer, the BCS, the CFP, etc. were all met with the same vitriol. Fans will forever be angry about something. Unfortunately for those fans, all of these changes were for good and gave more rights to college athletes.

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Mike Kovacs

The age-old issue. I agree with you, it’s an issue. It used to be swept under the rug much easier than today with everyone having a cell phone for recording and then social media for sharing.