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Welcome to College Football’s Free Market

NIL has created a messy, lawless recruiting marketplace, but that has always been true in college football. Suddenly, the sport is, for everyone, what it’s always been for the people in charge: a business.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The best book published in the 1990s comes from the finest thinker and writer of the time. His name is Barry Switzer, and in the first year of that decade, he published Bootlegger’s Boy, a triumphant and charming ode to being a dude while hanging out in the Southwestern United States toward the end of the 20th century. Switzer devotes an entire chapter to every charge the NCAA brought against him while he was the head football coach at the University of Oklahoma and then explains whether he thought he was guilty or not. If he was guilty, he says why he committed the infraction in question. He also clarifies one campus incident featuring a Sooners player who fired a pistol out of a dorm room window—it was not an uzi, as had been reported. Separately, Switzer tells the story of a booster’s wife who approached him at a party before an Oklahoma appearance in the Orange Bowl and, knowing his complicated life story, compared him to Jay Gatsby. Switzer moved to another corner of the room to ask his brother who Jay Gatsby was, and, after his brother gave him a quick summary, Switzer heartily agreed with the booster’s wife, though he never did pick up the novel.

The most pertinent section is a chapter called “The Recruiting Wars,” in which Switzer writes, “Recruiting is probably no dirtier than it used to be. Just more expensive.” He said he’d grown tired of recruiting by the late 1980s. So, too, around that time, had Michigan’s Bo Schembechler. Texas’s Darrell Royal, Switzer said, retired a decade earlier, in part because of the demands of recruiting and also because the kids were different, something Switzer suspected, too. The kids aren’t like they used to be, but Switzer continued, “Hell, maybe kids never were like they used to be.” What Barry Switzer knew in the late 1980s cuts to the heart of college football and has always been true: The kids were never like their coaches imagined, and nothing in the sport ever really changes. The recruiting wars never actually end. You can’t even really win them.

Last July, the NCAA suspended its decades-long policy prohibiting college athletes from monetizing their name, image, and likeness rights, also known as NIL. The change, which opened avenues for athletes to earn money through sponsorship deals or other business ventures, was widely considered a good thing: Americans, by a 2-to-1 margin, supported college athletes making money off of their brands. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young reportedly made close to seven figures before taking his first snap as the starter. Last August, Texas prep QB Quinn Ewers announced he was graduating high school a year early to enroll at Ohio State, after which he reportedly signed a seven-figure marketing deal. (He’s currently enrolled at Texas after leaving the Buckeyes program after the 2021 season.) These deals are more or less the new system working as it is designed to. When the NCAA announced its policy change, it offered almost no clarification on how to implement it. Technically, NCAA rules still forbid programs or individuals acting on their behalf from explicitly paying players to attend their universities. So while players have been allowed to sign lucrative deals, many of them exist in a gray area due to NCAA inaction, creative accounting from boosters, and a handful of other factors. The NCAA begged Congress—Congress!—for guidance that has not yet come.

For many college sports purists, a new wave of concern started last month when The Athletic reported that a 2023 five-star football recruit signed a deal that could pay him more than $8 million for his image rights. It’s a good piece that shines a light on an emerging market for top recruits and their arrangements with newly founded “NIL collectives,” formed in response to the NCAA’s policy change. These collectives consist mostly of boosters operating independently from their schools to negotiate and finance NIL deals, and will play an outsize role in recruiting going forward. The recruit in question was left anonymous in the story but it’s not hard to find a prevailing theory about his identity and that of the school. Because there’s no way to contractually compel a prospect to attend a certain school, the lawyer who drew up the deal said there’s an “element of trust” the player will in fact enroll at the university, and he welcomed NCAA scrutiny of the contracts. Carefully worded language like this keeps the deal on the right side of the NCAA’s compliance department. A school cannot pay a player to attend, but if a handful of like-minded captains of industry want to pay you money and they all happen to root for the same school? Chalk it up to coincidence and welcome aboard. The NCAA had 100 years to plan for this scenario and this is where we are.

The Athletic’s report set off an uninterrupted moral panic in the sport that is as embarrassing as it is wrong. College football website On3 quoted a handful of college coaches seething about what they saw as an inflection point. One declared recruiting, “as we’ve known it,” dead. “College football will never be the same, and I believe you will see some good men get out of the profession if it isn’t cleaned up or regulated,” another coach said. A recruiting coordinator pined for the days when schools were giving cars to recruits instead of cash. Another report from The Athletic sketched out some of the prices recruits are fetching for these sponsorship deals, ranging from six to seven figures depending on the player’s star rating and position. “We lost a kid (on signing day) over that. That hurt,” a Power 5 head coach told The Athletic. “Two hours before, the mom is telling me he’s coming here. And then she said, ‘Coach, how can we turn down $300,000?’ You can’t. Take it, I get it.”

I don’t know where to begin, so I’ll start here: I’m sorry to tell these coaches, but recruiting at the top level has always been a chaotic, deeply dishonest mess. When a four-star defensive end reopens his commitment, it has always looked like The Northman’s ancient Viking hockey scene. Recruiting has never been fair and neither has college football.

I do believe that a player received $300,000 to flip to another school. I believe that his mother told this coach that they had to take the money. What I don’t believe—and what you shouldn’t either—is that a Power 5 coach was naive enough to think this is new, or that this is the first time this has happened to him. The news is not that there are players mysteriously flipping on signing day—it’s that there’s apparently a Power 5 coach who started following the sport for the first time last summer.

The NIL decision did not usher in a new era when it comes to paying elite college athletes. It ushered in being able to talk about it. The dollar figures are probably bigger now—a product of knowing the market rate and athletes being able to negotiate better terms—but the game remains the same. Shadowy market forces ruled the movement of players at the top of college football before last July, and they rule it now.

This is not to hand-wave away the very real changes that will happen in the sport. Schools need to know the rules and coaches need to be hyper-aware of every NIL development. The easing of transfer restrictions—players are now allowed to transfer one time in their career without penalty—will impact the competitive landscape more significantly than NIL. The convergence of those two rule changes over the past year has caused a real shock to the system and a new way of life for coaches. My argument is more about the things that NIL won’t change—namely, the vast majority of things that happen in college football. The barrier for entry is higher to compete for a title? Well, no, it’s already been raised pretty high in the past decade. Only rich teams will compete? Ah, again, that happened a while ago. Until I’m proved otherwise—which is possible—I see no need for soul searching. Show me a bad NIL program and I’ll show you a bad college football program. Show me a team that can’t compete in the NIL era and I’ll show you a team that wasn’t going to compete in modern college football anyway.

There seems to be an overarching fantasy in college sports at the moment that there will be some end to this chapter, that some rule change or regulation will cease this particular arms race. I’m here to help: Nothing is coming to end this, and if you hate it or don’t want to play by these new rules, nothing is coming to save you. State legislatures and even the Supreme Court have undermined the NCAA’s legitimacy—the NCAA was incapable of administering its power, so now the boosters get to wield theirs. The fundamental business of college football hasn’t changed, only the terms of operating within it. Suddenly, the sport is, for everyone, what it’s always been for the people in charge: a business.

I’d be moved by any of the arguments decrying college sports’ new state of play if anyone making them could point to the time when there wasn’t rampant cheating. When was the golden era of recruiting for these coaches? Point me to a year when there was a level playing field. A year into its existence, NIL is a lawless and ungoverned market, yes, but it replaced a lawless and ungoverned market. Over the weekend, All-Big 12 basketball guard Nijel Pack transferred to Miami from Kansas State. Around the time of the announcement, lawyer and Miami booster John Ruiz tweeted that his company committed $800,000 to Pack, plus a car, for an endorsement deal. Pack’s deal is an outsize version of a trend that will only accelerate. He’s not the first person to transfer between schools for money, but he’s one of the first in which the terms of the payment were tweeted out by the principals within minutes of his transfer becoming official.

Former NFL running back Fred Taylor was recently asked on a podcast to confirm a rumor that he took tens of thousands of dollars from Georgia when he was being recruited in the mid-1990s, before ultimately attending Florida. Taylor wouldn’t confirm the sum other than to say, laughingly, that it was “closer to $50,000.” Andrew Brandt, an agent and former Packers executive, said he’s heard from current football agents who are celebrating the fact that they no longer have to fund college players throughout their pre-NFL years. (Some of those agents, by the way, are still giving players money anyway.)

NIL is not making a dirty game cleaner. And it’s not making it dirtier, either. It just lets the entire world know the cost of doing business. The teams that didn’t bend or break the rules in the past don’t have to now—there are thousands of talented prospects available for the price of a college scholarship and the opportunity to play Division I football, just as there always have been. But the teams that were habitual line-steppers or outright cheaters in the old system are now studying the new rules and buckling up their chin straps.

Now comes a parade of supposedly unanswered questions about the slippery slopes that await every program. A longtime Florida State beat writer theorized that given the size of Ruiz’s investment in a Miami player, “it probably won’t be long before he’s firing and hiring coaches (and ADs)” if the team’s results are not satisfactory. This, of course, completely obscures the fact that boosters have been trying to hire and fire coaches for 100 years. And even if they aren’t high-profile individuals, the booster class still has a useful tactic to force out unwanted coaches. In 2014, Steven Godfrey anonymously quoted a handful of bag men about how they surreptitiously pay college football players. They also told Godfrey how they have the power to make a coach a lame duck. “If a majority of bag men want a particular coach out, they’ll just dry up funds,” Godfrey wrote.

Alabama coach Nick Saban called the current NIL model “unsustainable,” and I agree with him. The eventual NIL landscape will look vastly different than it does now, in the same way many new industries change quickly at the beginning. Many of these changes will happen as a result of simple trial and error as programs find the right financial formula to build title-contending rosters. Boosters are not particularly good at team-building—spending $8 million on a college football quarterback if you aren’t proportionally spending at other positions is not going to win you a national title. A plan by Texas boosters to give offensive linemen $50,000 each is probably a better general strategy (though they’re going to need to increase the amount).

But an interesting debate is playing out in real time: How do you build a team in the NIL era? The same way you did in the old one. And there’s the rub as it relates to the current NIL gold rush. Recruiting is significant only in the aggregate. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes following recruiting knows the bust rate is high, which is why the current NIL market is due for a correction, if not necessarily a dip in total dollars spent. Spending a ton of money on 20 recruits—or better yet, 40—is the way forward, not spending ungodly sums on one. “A lot of people tell me hey, don’t worry, this isn’t here to stay, these numbers you’re seeing out there, people can’t keep that up. I disagree,” Lane Kiffin told The Athletic. “[Schools] always find a way to keep up. They find money.” My humble football advice: Spend money on players along the lines, as much as you can afford.

The competitive landscape in college football’s future looks a hell of a lot like its past. I think the teams that competed for the national title over the past 25 years will compete for the national title for the next 25. I’m skeptical that a team will emerge to act as college football’s version of Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain, where rich owners bankroll the best rosters in the world almost overnight. The reason is that college football always was a money game relying on boosters; it just wasn’t about spending solely on talent, but on facilities upgrades and highly paid coaching staffs. Thus, it doesn’t seem likely that a team will appear out of nowhere to dominate the NIL landscape if it wasn’t already attracting good recruits before. If there’s a school at which boosters didn’t donate before NIL but decide to do so now, I’d be surprised.

Texas A&M’s top-ranked recruiting class was a high point for the program, but the Aggies were regularly getting top 10 classes prior to NIL and beat Alabama last year. They also gave Jimbo Fisher one of the biggest contracts in the history of the sport. The Aggies are a poor example for a seismic shift in college football, because they were already in the sport’s elite in recruiting and spending. If you want to convince me of a seismic shift, show me Arizona getting the best class in the country. Show me Purdue. Now that would be a sea change.

College football always has been unfair, and climbing into the ranks of the elite—as Georgia and Clemson have over the past decade—is a monumental task, achieved through recruiting, resources, and player development. The head coaches at those schools, Kirby Smart and Dabo Swinney, told their bosses to give them exactly what Alabama had. That’s the barrier for entry into the sport’s elite: a limitless supply of resources paired with elite recruiters and coaches who can develop pros. Over the five-year period ending in 2021, 60 percent of five-star recruits went to the same five schools—Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, LSU, and Ohio State—with that percentage increasing as the five-year period went on. The lack of parity was getting worse, not better.

The only way to narrow the gap between the haves and the have-nots is the scenario I described earlier: Either schools that already recruit well organize NIL well enough to get an early lead in the new recruiting wars and use that for a few years to compete with the Alabamas of the world, or one random billionaire floats an entire program. The first is more likely. Four of the top five recruiting classes in history came in the past five years, and Texas A&M just topped them all this spring. Fisher strongly denies NIL had anything to do with the Aggies’ 2022 class. Last December, he joked “there were a lot of NIL deals going on before all this was going on. They just weren’t legal and no one told nobody.” I understand the impulse to say NIL had nothing to do with your success, but also: who cares? If you’re doing what every other top team is doing, and you are better at it over a given cycle, is that something to be ashamed of? If I were a coach I’d rather be known as the “NIL Daddy” coach, instead of the “I put together great classes for free” guy. Texas A&M knows the rules and is playing by them and is crushing it. Good for the Aggies. The team launched a pretty standard NIL program last year, but there’s no public benefactor announcing deals in real time. What there is, however, is message board innuendo and pocket watching, which—and I can’t stress this enough—is the same thing that’s been happening with top recruiting classes for 50 years.

Coaches and administrators seem to want more NCAA regulation over NIL, but that won’t solve much. Paying players to maximize their brand versus directly paying them to attend a specific school is a distinction without difference. Even if you banned recruits from discussing NIL and policed it perfectly, top recruits who want money will find the schools that give out the biggest NIL deals to their players. There is no turning back. Even if the NCAA tried, athletes, and potential bag men, have a better idea of market rates than ever before.

The implications of NIL are still being understood. In the past few weeks, a handful of college basketball stars decided to stay in school rather than declare for the NBA draft, including Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, who became the first national player of the year to return to school in a decade. Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde reported Tshiebwe is expected to earn over $2 million in NIL endorsements. Tshiebwe was ranked as ESPN’s 44th-ranked prospect in this year’s NBA draft. Even if he had declared and gotten selected at the end of the first round, around the 30th pick, his guaranteed salary for his first year as a pro would’ve still been less than what he’s expected to earn via his NIL deal at Kentucky. Some of these collectives are just sort of wholesome: The Athletic’s Ari Wasserman recently wrote a good piece about Wake Forest, which will help its athletes navigate their NIL opportunities once they are on campus but has vowed never to get involved in the big-money recruiting wars.

A heartbreaking aspect of football to me has been seeing college stars who will not make an NFL team competing in training camps. They’d typically been the best player in their hometown’s history, a legend at their high school, and an alpha in their college program. They generated a lot of money for their institutions and, upon being cut from an NFL team for any number or reasons—size, lack of elite athleticism, etc.—ended up leaving the sport of football without enough money to put a down payment on a house. They dominated a sport in front of 70,000 people for years with very little to show for it. NIL, hopefully, increases the earning potential for players who star in college but don’t thrive financially in the NFL.

College football is a sport that feels as though it’s on the edge. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said recently that college football will inevitably break up into two parts: teams that want to exist in the current structure aligned with their university’s educational mission and teams that are a part of their university in name only, and he’s not alone in thinking that. Swarbrick targeted the middle of the 2030s as a possible time frame for this schism to happen. I think it’s optimistic to think the current structure will last that long. Paul Finebaum on Monday said the sport “as we know it is on its last breath” and that a drastic reordering is “happening with unbelievable speed, supersonic speed that I could not have predicted.” This is not the fault of NIL—the seismic changes impacting college football are more attributable to the increasing disparity between individual conferences’ television contracts and the influx of cash into the sport. Swarbrick said that the rising value of the Big Ten and SEC’s TV deals will continue the trend of programs trying to change conference affiliations, as Oklahoma and Texas recently have done in announcing their intention to join the SEC. The concentration of elite programs among a few conferences could lead to an abandonment of the FBS apparatus entirely. Everyone, it seems, is trying to get paid.

The best arguments against the current state of NIL are that it seems unfair, that it prioritizes a select few, and that it might change a sport that most of us adore. Also, a lot of coaches hate the changes. None of these are good arguments. The Supreme Court, one of the most polarizing institutions in a polarized country, voted unanimously against the NCAA in a compensation dispute last summer, just before the NCAA announced its reversal on NIL. “The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student athletes in innocuous labels. But the labels cannot disguise the reality: The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America,” wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh. College football, without some big structural changes, faces a very real existential threat. If more courts and state legislatures determine that the NCAA engages in anticompetitive business practices, those decisions would increase the chances that a legal ruling or challenge would plunge college sports into such chaos that coaches will only dream of the halcyon days of $8 million contracts for quarterbacks that were drawn up by lawyers for collectives.

If you hate NIL—or even if you have legitimate misgivings about it—I have some good news for you: The sport, on Saturdays, will look exactly the same. The transfer portal will mean that players stick with one team for less time, and NIL will mean some changes in recruiting patterns, but if you just want to be a Saturday fan, you’re all set. Saturday night in Death Valley will still be loud as hell. Alabama is still going to win a ton of games. You’ll still have to remember, upon turning on the Big Ten Network, that Maryland is in the conference. Nothing has to change for you in the NIL era. Everything changes for the players. Almost every sport is a mess that cannot get out of its own way politically, and college football is no different. If the sport dies in 15 years that will be the fault of administrators, not the players or the bagmen. I guess what I’m trying to say to fans, coaches, and athletic directors at the cusp of the NIL era is simple: Everything’s gonna be OK.

Switzer, by the way, in his book, specifically said he never paid recruits straight cash or gave them cars to come to Oklahoma. He broke NCAA rules, but there were no duffle bags full of bills for a high schooler. Over the weekend, Switzer was back in the news. He’s heading up an NIL collective that plans to give all Sooners $40,000-$50,000. Recruiting is no dirtier than it used to be. Just more expensive.