The viral video of No. 1 Rivals.com recruit Travis Hunter signing with Jackson State over Florida State, Georgia and Auburn looms as an inflection point for college football.
It’s the most recognizable moment in a flurry of events that show the 2022 recruiting class portends change in how the talent procurement process and compensation of college athletes will unfold. It can be placed alongside top-ranked quarterback Quinn Ewers leaving high school early for NIL riches, Lane Kiffin declaring players are headed to “where they get paid the most” and an acknowledgement in the industry that separating NIL from recruiting will be impossible.
So as the buzz from signing day quiets down and a new recruiting world beckons, the question looms about where we’re headed in college football. As college sports have become professionalized in the past few decades, what will all this look like in 10 years?
“It’s not a sustainable model,” one veteran athletic director observed about signing day. “Something has to give. Some structure has to emerge out of this. Look, recruiting was always going to be a mess for a year. And this is the start of it.”
The issue with college athletics will always be that the talent acquisition model is unique. There’s no draft, no geographic boundaries and no linear or fair way to fill rosters like professional leagues.
Perhaps a European soccer-style bidding model will eventually arrive. But that seems ponderous, inefficient and unsustainable.
The best place for college sports to look for clarity is a place where there’s rarely clear process – Congress. Some type of revenue sharing model between the television billions flowing into the leagues and the athletes people are tuning in to see needs to emerge.
How Title IX exemption and revenue sharing could reshape college football
The Supreme Court itself has nudged college sports in this direction, with a decision in June on education-related benefits. Justice Brett Kavanuagh signaled the future when writing: “Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate.”
In other words: Change is coming, and the feckless school presidents and no-show NCAA leadership in Indianapolis should be ready for it.
Instead, in an effort to hoard all the revenue, college athletics have fallen in a predictable, myopic and spiraling habit the past few decades of changing rules only by necessity. One event happens, a recruiting rule is changed to address it. College athletics has inch-wormed along to address the daily outcries and rarely look past the issues immediately at hand.
There has been no sport in the world managed holistically more poorly than American college sports the past generation, and that’s why some broader vision is needed for this latest crossroads. No less entity than the Supreme Court has dictated change. But will there be change agents?
Here’s where Congress comes in. The biggest obstacle for some type of revenue sharing model is Title IX, the federal civil rights law designed to prevent discrimination. Title IX has been a boon to women’s college athletics, assuring scholarship equity and spawning more than a generation of women’s athletes.
As the revenues have flowed into the billions, one way to bring some conformity to the landscape would be allowing a Title IX exemption for revenue sports to split some of the profits with team members. At some point, the players are going to get a cut of these billion-dollar television deals. So leagues should be proactive and figure out a way to let the players in the front door for revenue, instead of sending them to side doors.
Why not have a uniform percentage where, for example, the 14 teams in the SEC – or 16 after Oklahoma and Texas arrive – share that money with players? That annual per-school revenue number is expected to be north of $60 million annually after 2023.
South Carolina, for example, would have to take 15 percent of that to give to its 85 football players. That would give each player about $105,000 in annual salary for their scholarship. Now the star quarterback could still get a car from the dealership and free brisket from The Southern Belly. But this would be a baseline to streamline and share profits. (Basketball would get a small share, too, although the television money that flows to that sport in league deals is drastically smaller than football.)
Some leaders in power conferences have quietly acknowledged that some type of revenue sharing is inevitable in the upcoming decades. And they know that the conferences themselves would need to lead the way.
And while it certainly wouldn’t end individual bidding wars and opportunity, it would add a baseline element of equity and sanity that has been missing. It would also align schools and players, instead of attempting to lure them and get them compensated through outside realms, which is going to end up cumbersome and problematic. (We are due for a wave of transfers because schools/entities didn’t hold up their end of NIL.)
Would the players have to give up some individual NIL and marketing rights like many college coaches do in their contracts? Sure. And for a vast majority, they’d be making exponentially more than their market value. The elite players – think Bryce Young for next season – would have to be able to work with their schools to carve out deals.
What this would do is speed up the inevitable separation between the SEC and the Big Ten and the rest of college football. (Market forces are stronger than verbal alliances, after all.) It would spell out what’s already apparent in college football – there are clear different levels among the leagues. This would simply put dollar amounts to the perceptions and accentuate and accelerate them. Perhaps the Big Ten and SEC would become the college version NFC and AFC. Perhaps other leagues would cultivate clever ways to drive revenue to put themselves on equal playing field.
What will actually happen? Nothing from the NCAA, that’s the safest prediction. It spent so many years worrying about cream cheese on bagels and text message that it lost control.
Seismic change would have to come from the conferences and Congress. And as college sports head into a new frontier, wouldn’t it be nice to share the spoils with the players above board? Not offload it to the local car dealer, restaurant and T-shirt shop. The current NIL rules, which are being ignored, indicate that players are supposed to find their own deals without help from the schools. They are being followed about as closely as, well, NCAA rules are usually followed.
The whole system remains exhausting to police and inefficient to operate. Just figure out a way to give the players a slice, which feels more and more like an inevitability. Cut out a few assistant ADs, pay the coaches less and start a baseline structure for the schools to control the heart of the NIL payments. This is coming, and will be easier if dictated by the leagues and not the courts.
There’s nothing wrong with the free market that we’re starting to see in college football. But it’s not sustainable in its current form. Nor is it sensible.
The next generation of college football should be finding a way to cut in the players through the front door, not side doors. It’s so logical that there’s broad skepticism that it can happen.