Did you catch the CFP National Championship? If you didn’t, let me catch you up: Georgia conquered its conference rival Alabama, winning its first national title since 1980. Despite the breathless, thrilling competition college football offers, it is overshadowed in popularity by the NFL. Is that fair? No. Does it make sense? Kind of, but primarily because there are far fewer NFL teams than Division I college football programs making it hard to select a team to root for if you didn’t attend college (or a college with a D1 football program). Plus, if you think Roger Goodell is bad, the brass at the NCAA are far worse. For decades, the NCAA has profited from the arduous, countless hours of hard work logged by its players which they insist on calling “student athletes.” But thanks to state and federal legislation on NIL (Name, Image, and Likeness), these players now have the license to sign endorsement deals and promote both themselves and products like soft drinks and DraftKings-style sports betting apps. College football brings in over $4 billion per year in revenue, and finally the individuals who make a staggering figure like that possible, get cut in on the action.
The holiday season has come and gone but it brought yet another stirring edition of the college football postseason, otherwise known as “Bowl Season,” which comprises of forty bowl games over the course of three weeks. Keep that in mind at the outset as we embark on this journey through bowl cancellations and, perhaps more pressing, opt outs for marquee talent. Imagine an NFL postseason game in which Justin Herbert or Amari Cooper just sit out. And you’re allowed to pick any reason you’d like as to why you might do that. The point is that without the game’s biggest stars, the contests lose a tremendous amount of luster. And unfortunate as it may be, that’s exactly what has become the norm in college football. Megastars like Kenneth Walker III of Michigan State and Chris Olave of Ohio State watched their team’s respective bowl games from home in the hopes of entering the NFL draft fully healthy. You can’t blame a player for protecting his future career investments, but that absence hurts a team’s and the public’s perception. Take away the players’ gaudy numbers and take away TV ratings. If you’re wondering, “doesn’t it make sense for a star player to sit out if they’re not playing for the national championship?” you wonder correctly, but there are ways, at least theoretically, to keep star players on the field for bowl games of a lower tier.
One of them I already told you about. Yes, you guessed it: the NIL. Since July of 2021, players across college football have utilized the “Name, Image and Likeness” allowances to profit off their fame, on-field performances, and business acumen, within the parameters what each state allows. That a player now stands to benefit from monetary gains during his or her collegiate career, helps to a degree alleviate fears that a substantial injury will prohibit a player from making a living in the sport he or she is pursuing. It sounds good in practice. And on paper because so far, it’s working. But the college football landscape is peppered with “traditionalists” who are weary of the ramifications of “student athletes” advancing financial interests during college. Among those concerned are the two coaches who participated in this year’s national championship game: Nick Saban and Kirby Smart. While neither of them opposes NIL considerations, both feel as though it is under-regulated, leading to a veritable “Wild West” of activity. Speaking on the topic and its influence over a student’s school selection, Saban said, “I think what is a little concerning is how is that used to get players to decide where they go to school, because I don’t think that was the intention”. The thing is, students will go to the school where they stand the most to gain in terms of playing time, exposure and lifestyle. Regardless of what kind of money they’re making on the side.
To the issue of getting players to play in non-championship bowl games, the answer is simple: Pay them. It doesn’t have to be Mahomes money. But now that players are getting compensated anyway, what’s the harm in paying each player a few hundred, maybe more dollars to play in their school’s bowl games? There is no harm. Just an NCAA that has a hard time accepting or admitting it’s wrong. What the NCAA may not realize is that as an entity it holds the power of looking after a sport that arguably brings out more passion, more engagement, and more memorable moments than anything else we know of. Anyone who has ever attended a tailgate on a crisp October morning knows this is true. College football speaks to the best parts of all of us, the parts we can live our best lives in, and the parts that make us feel alive.