Nick Saban knows his program is one of the best in the history of college football.
He also knows that the future of the SEC, and possibly the NCAA at large, is at risk.
“If you think there is disparity in college football now, there’s going to be a lot more in the future,” he said.
“I made the statement years ago and got very criticized for it: Is this what we want college football to become?” Saban said relating the changes in NIL to a comment he made close to a decade ago when the spread offense exploded in the sport. “I don’t think it’s going to be a level playing field because some people are showing a willingness to spend more than others.”
With NIL booming, the widespread changes that have transpired over the past two years have been monumental, for better or worse, in shaping the modern NCAA.
Collectives are funneling donor funds directly to teams and athletes, allowing what many are considering a “pay-for-play” model in recruitment thanks to who is willing is give.
Jason Belzer, founder of Student Athlete NIL (SANIL) which operates over 30 collectives nationwide, told SI that the average collective at the Power Five level has around $3 million on hand, with the best operating at numbers into the $7 to 10 million range.
While compensation for athletes at the Power Five level varies from anywhere between $10,000 and $50,000 annually, Belzer tells SI “about five players per roster are making more than $100,000 on average.”
But aside from the changes happening within the confines of the NCAA and its institutions, involvement by state and the federal government are significantly changing the parity dynamic in college sports — just look at the SEC.
SEC institutions who hold immense power in these parts of the country have carefully managed to put their state legislature in a chokehold, allowing them to skirt the rules regarding NIL — and in the case of Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and pending a bill in Texas — invincibility against the NCAA.
In Missouri, House Bill 417, which was passed and sent to the governor for signing this week, allows high school athletes who commit to in-state institutions can be compensated for their name, image and likeness before enrolling at the school, like the University of Missouri, the largest college in the state. Similar bills are in place in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Speaking of Arkansas, athletes are allowed to be paid for appearances by nonprofits owned by the school’s fundraising arm.
But in states like Florida, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi, they don’t get any of that because the state law prohibits it and the school’s would thus be violating NCAA rules.
“If you are the SEC office and you’ve got 14 schools and three are operating this way, it’s a competitive problem,” Walker Jones, executive director of Ole Miss’ collective “The Grove” told Sports Illustrated.
“It reminds me of a rigged marketplace,” Julie Sommer, a lawyer and expert on NIL matters who works for the Drake Group, an organization whose mission is to defend academic integrity at universities, told SI. “Federally funded institutions running these enterprises for private gain? The first big question is, what’s the IRS going to do?”
Whether or not you agree with it, this is the reality in college sports, and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is handcuffed thanks to government involvement.
“What’s happening at our state level is exactly what I warned about,” Sankey said on Monday at the SEC’s league meetings in Destin, Florida. “Our states are making a mess of college athletics. Our states are adopting laws that are not helpful to conduct conference competition or national competition.”
One SEC athletic director compared the current state of the NCAA to money laundering, and everyone is doing it. Now, thanks to new laws in the aforementioned states of Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, with others to follow suit eventually, the relationship between school and collective are now as closely linked as ever — as if they weren’t already. Language in new legislation allows a schools nonprofit fundraising branch to provide NIL deals, and with what is essentially an invincibility clause allowing them to avoid punishment by the NCAA, these states have potential to become even more powerful in the world of college athletics.
As of now, the lack of enforcement by the NCAA and the intentions of new president Charlie Baker is clear.
In March, the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing alongside Baker, with Baker urging the federal government to get involved in NIL. Earlier this month, Baker urged lawmakers to pass a federal regulation to develop a national framework around NIL, as well as implement legal safeguards to allow the NCAA to propose additional regulations.
Whether the underlying reason for Baker’s push is to provide damage control to the plethora of antitrust suits against the NCAA or not, it is clear a federal NIL bill is not at the top of the agenda.
In the meantime, Saban gave his own take on what to do to avoid a competitive imbalance.
“Unionize it, make it like the NFL. If it’s going to be the same for everyone, I think that’s better than what we have now. What we have now is some states and some schools and some schools in some states investing a lot more money in managing their roster than others,” Saban said. “This is going to create a real competitive disadvantage for some in the future, and it’s also going to create an imbalance in the competitive nature of the sport.”
As schools and collectives become linked closer than before and states continue to develop their own regulations, something has to give. The future of the NCAA and its competitive balance is in flux, and the only ways to solve it is for the NCAA to get involved, or continue to wait until the government steps in, which may not come until after the upcoming election cycle.
As Walker Jones put it, “we’re in no man’s land.”