Here's a guideline for how coaches can discuss NIL incentivizing players without treating it like it's taboo
One day, we’re gonna live in a world in which coaches can talk about NIL comfortably.
Like, without everything sounding like either an accusation or a vehement denial. Instead of coaches treating this like they’re on trial, eventually they’ll speak about NIL in the recruiting process just like they speak about how much money their players have made in the NFL.
The Jimbo Fisher-Nick Saban feud was many things. It was great theater, it was personal and it was accusatory. It was also a reminder that we’re still not at a place in the NIL era wherein everyone is on the same page. Saban saying that A&M “bought” its entire recruiting class — which happened to be the highest-rated group in 247sports history — was what pushed Fisher over the edge. It’s why the A&M coach fired back at Saban by calling him a narcissist and saying his comments were “despicable.”
Saban responded by stating that he never accused A&M of cheating while Fisher doubled down by going on a San Antonio TV station and declaring that it was “all false” about the rumored tens of millions of dollars that A&M spent on its 2022 recruiting class.
It appears that these coaches have been trained for decades on how to speak about recruiting. What they haven’t been trained in, however, is how to actually speak about NIL’s role in recruiting in a sensible way. It’s still taboo. If it isn’t illegal, calling somebody out for it doesn’t seem right. And on the flip side, if it isn’t illegal, some wholesale denial doesn’t seem right, either.
So while these random May blowups certainly help pass the time during these typically lean months of the college football calendar, it does feel like we can get to a place where there can be a common understanding about the issue.
Let’s give coaches a guideline for how to discuss NIL in an appropriate way that doesn’t create World War III:
Calling out specific programs for using NIL in recruiting doesn’t really help your cause
See “Saban, Nick.”
Saban admitted that he regretted singling A&M and Jackson State out because the defense is easy. I mean, even if Saban had literally held up a specific contract saying “here’s what Travis Hunter was given to attend Jackson State,” what would that have really done? It’s not like Saban is blowing the whistle on illegal activity.
And even if it was attempting to do something like that, remember when Lane Kiffin infamously said that Urban Meyer illegally called Nu’keese Richardson while he was visiting Tennessee? It was Kiffin who ended up with egg on his face, not only because it came off as insecure, but also because Meyer actually didn’t commit an NCAA violation.
It was Kiffin who actually set Fisher off the first time in February with this comment:
Lane Kiffin: “We don’t have the funding resources as some schools with the NIL deals. It’s like dealing with salary caps.”
He says some schools can pay “5-10” times more.
“I joked I didn’t know if Texas A&M incurred a luxury tax with how much they paid for their signing class.”
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) February 1, 2022
This isn’t about being right or wrong. The issue is 2-fold. For starters, if Kiffin doesn’t have proof of that, he sets up Fisher for a pretty easy denial (I’ll get to the manner in which that should be approached in a bit). The other issue is that Kiffin is basically sending a bat signal into the world of “hey, they’ve got more money than we do.” No coach would say “that program in our division has better facilities than we do.” This should be treated in the same sort of way.
It was Kiffin himself who said that kids are going to make their college decisions based on NIL, so why bring even more attention to the differences between Ole Miss and A&M?
Lane Kiffin: Most recruits are choosing schools based on NIL money and “how can you blame them when a lot of them never make the NFL?”
“Go & build these great weight rooms, but you ain’t gonna have any good players in them if you don’t have NIL money.”https://t.co/Bupmmq7jnv
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) May 25, 2022
Kiffin can still make his point without adding that part about A&M. He can let us infer which specific programs he’s talking about. That’s really what Saban and Kiffin were both trying to do. Fisher himself wants regulation, as well. The 3 of them just had very different approaches to communicating that.
Denying that NIL played ANY sort of role in recruitment is also silly
See “Fisher, Jimbo.”
Here’s the situation that could present itself at a National Signing Day press conference:
Reporter: How much do you think NIL impacted your blue-chip quarterback recruit to sign with your program?
Coach: You’d have to ask him. What I do know is that we’ve taken an aggressive approach to making sure our guys are making the right decisions with NIL once they get here. We equip them with all the resources needed to help themselves while making sure it doesn’t take away from their development as players. We want to excel at that. We recognize that we need to continue to excel at that in order to make sure that we’re giving our players the best possible college experience during the time that they’re on our campus.
We make sure that every player we sign understands what we expect from them, and if they take care of those things, we’re gonna make sure we can get them those opportunities to make money off their likeness. I hope that they looked at what we’ve done through NIL so far and that was a positive for us in the recruiting process. We want to be elite in everything we do, and that includes NIL.
Easy enough, right?
OK, let’s try another one:
Reporter: Another coach said your class was paid $30 million to sign at A&M.
Coach: Is there a question in there?
Reporter: Is what he said true?
Coach: What does it matter if we did or didn’t?
Reporter: Well, I guess it gets into the gray area about what’s pay for play and what’s NIL.
Coach: We’re not breaking any rules with what we’re doing. Does our staff work incredibly hard to sign players? Absolutely. Have we made sure our guys have plenty of NIL opportunities once they arrive on campus? For sure. Recruiting isn’t like you’re sitting at an art auction and bidding on pieces. Sure, it’s a different landscape now and we make NIL part of the recruiting pitch. Kids want to hear about that and I don’t blame them. But in the same way that we sell some recruits after 1 visit to Kyle Field, I’m sure we had some recruits who heard about our NIL opportunities and that sealed the deal for them.
None of that sounds overly defensive. It addresses the NIL elephant in the room and admits that it’s part of the recruiting process. But that doesn’t necessarily turn it into some back and forth that questions one’s ability to recruit the old-fashioned way.
It’s also not a coach’s job to say exactly how many NIL opportunities were made possible or for them to define what pay for play vs. NIL actually is. An answer like that is a subtle flex without an outward denial because let’s also not forget that there are worse narratives to have about a program than being the one ponying up for blue-chip recruits.
There’s a reason why Saban told the world that Bryce Young got $1 million in NIL earnings before he started a game at Alabama.
Let’s do this one last scenario:
Reporter: Coach, do you think your quarterback returning for another year in school was the byproduct of NIL?
Coach: It sure as heck couldn’t have hurt. And if it was the dealbreaker, hey, that’s a win for us.
Nothing wrong with that. At all.
It’s OK to talk about collectives, too
I thought it was strange that Fisher said that he knew everything his staff did was above board, but that he didn’t know how the collective was handled. To be fair, it’s not the coach’s job to decide who gets what through a collective. I get that. But Fisher essentially talked about A&M’s collective, which is called “The Fund,” like it was something totally outside of his jurisdiction.
Meanwhile, Saban said on multiple occasions that NIL wasn’t the problem, and that it was collectives that were at the root of the issue. Specifically, the fact that boosters are allowed to funnel money to players through a collective.
It’s interesting that Alabama didn’t have a collective for most of the first year of NIL, but recently got one. Saban said that Alabama players got an even cut of the money. Unlike Fisher, he had specifics about an even distribution. He also somewhat downplayed their significance by saying that “his players made more money than anyone” without a collective:
— Simone Eli (@SimoneEli_TV) April 19, 2022
Note that when USC won the Jordan Addison sweepstakes, it didn’t do so with a collective, either. Then again, Pitt didn’t have a collective when Addison hit the portal.
Why do I bring that up? Because I think collectives are important, but they’re not everything. The NCAA somehow didn’t anticipate the involvement of collectives, which is why there aren’t necessarily enforced rules in place, other than outlining that teams must abide by whatever “market value” is.
There’s nothing that’s stopping a coach from bragging about how much money a team’s collective brought in. They aren’t technically operated by the university. Saban said that “our players made $3 million for themselves by doing it the right away” and they didn’t buy a single player.
I’d love to hear a coach say “our collective was actually responsible for getting our guys $5 million. I’m grateful that our local business owners stepped to the plate and helped make us better by utilizing our athletes in the community.”
Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But collectives aren’t bagmen. Nobody ever said it was a crime or an NCAA violation to have an outside organization facilitating NIL deals.
When in doubt? Be pro-NIL and accept that this isn’t amateur athletics anymore
It’s just not. Coaches don’t have to say “players have been getting paid forever.” That’s sort of implied.
Let’s play out a little scenario here again:
Reporter: Do you think NIL is good for the future of the sport?
Coach: If we do this right, absolutely NIL can be an asset. Times have changed. We need to change with them. We as coaches need to accept that if we’re going to have different financial benefits off of this sport than what was available 20 years ago, so do the players. Growing our platform is a good thing, which is why I’m all for players getting what they can.
Is this current system perfect? No, but then again, what entirely new system is perfect after just a year? I think we can continue to tweak things to make sure that we’re doing things in the best interest of the future of the sport. We can be pro-NIL and pro-regulation at the same time. Shoot, even Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban agreed on that.
All I know is that we’re embracing this new chapter of college athletics and we’re ready for whatever lies ahead with NIL.
Did I get a touch dramatic with that last line? Probably. But that’s what I’d want my coach to say. You can raise concerns about legislation in the right away. A follow up would probably happen in that setting, too.
Reporter: What would you tweak with NIL?
Coach: Like I said, we can be pro-NIL and pro-regulation at the same time. We like to operate within specific parameters to know what we can and can’t do. Despite what you might see sometimes on a Saturday afternoons, we as coaches acknowledge that we can’t play a football game without officials. We also can’t get on the same page with NIL unless we have a specific set of rules that are being enforced. We need to figure out the best way to make that happen.
An answer like that doesn’t imply that a coach has all the answers, but it at least addresses the current issue. That’s really all that needs to be said.
To be fair, we’ve seen a handful of coaches who have addressed this issue well. Saban has mostly addressed it well. He just took an admitted misstep by signaling out specific programs at the tail end of a 7-minute answer. He’s not alone.
Now, though, Saban and his fellow coaches can refer back to this guideline for how to discuss NIL in a constructive, responsible way that doesn’t start World War III.