Prior to the days of Name, Image, Likeness (NIL), college student athletes were made to believe that the only value they had in the eyes of the NCAA was to receive an athletic scholarship by means of free classes in exchange for their active participation on a college team. As the hours and obligations increased over the years, more college student athletes began speaking up about perceived injustices relating to what they were receiving in return for their efforts, resulting in the benefits of the current NIL structure where student athletes can transfer to wherever they are fiscally valued the most. While this is great for student athletes (and arguably long overdue), an unintended effect we are witnessing are the growing number of college football coaches who now complain that other schools they compete against are “buying” better teams by means of generating lucrative NIL deals. Mark Stoops of Kentucky is the latest to voice concerns about this issue, but Nick Saban also complained about it just a few weeks ago. Should we feel sorry for these coaches (most of whom are the highest wage earners, by far, at their respective colleges), or suggest they take a more measured view of what is happening in college sports?
The pendulum has swung…
Before the NIL benefits currently being enjoyed by student athletes, coaches controlled nearly every aspect of “amateur” college sports. Some student athletes received full tuition benefits, while others received partial scholarships (and some merely just the cost of books). In exchange, student athletes had great restrictions when it came to earning money, and transferring to different schools if they felt their current school was not an ideal fit. It is important to note that in contrast, coaches have always been able to negotiate better contracts, and they regularly break their contracts without penalty to begin coaching at a different school. Interestingly, while it is the student athlete who makes revenue for the school, the student athlete has always been the one who enjoys the least amount of benefit by means of earnings and autonomy to transfer to different schools.
But now, the pendulum has swung in a more equitable direction, and increasingly more coaches are unhappy about that news. While some coaches may appreciate and support wage earning and free decision-making opportunities for student athletes, what coaches like Stoops and Saban do not like is the loss of full control of their team and program, which has in turn changed the way they coach. Today, college coaches realize that student athletes — the actual revenue producers — no longer have to be made to feel greedy when wanting to make money, or too afraid to speak out about issues for fear of being punished. Coaches appear to be struggling with the new balance needed to treat student athletes better than they might have in the past, and continually keep them happy and discouraged from leaving to go elsewhere. Perhaps an unintended effect, but student athletes are now in a lot more control of their destiny, and more directly responsible for the success of a coach when they can transfer out today with no penalty or long wait. These are concerns that Stoops and Saban have quickly recognized, with the assumption more coaches will complain about these things in the future as their job security and salaries hang in the balance.
We have gone from very little benefit for student athletes by means of wage-earning and freedom of choice, to complete control of those concerns — and literally overnight. The NCAA and congress are already looking at ways to reign in NIL and gain a greater sense of control, and the pendulum will likely swing back some by means of more controlled earnings and transfers between schools. Still, the college game has permanently changed as it applies to the dominance college coaches once had over student athletes, and clearly some coaches are feeling threatened that their success might not be the same in the future as student athletes gain more by means of earnings and freedom.