The Arkansas Razorbacks suited up just 48 scholarship players for their Liberty Bowl matchup with Kansas last month.
The NCAA, of course, allows for 85. In this new era of college football, such postseason attrition is normal. NIL, the transfer portal and NFL-ready players opting out to prepare for the draft have transformed how “the game” is played.
That the Hogs won the game, the actual football game, in Memphis — and multiple times, despite the creativity displayed by the officiating and replay crews — speaks to the job Sam Pittman does as head coach and the fight displayed by those Hogs who “opted” to suit up.
Many teams now show up for these December bowl games as a shell of their former selves. And an unregulated, uncapped NIL environment has transformed the process of buying players. Bagman meets ad man.
The transfer portal, which enables players to transfer to another team and maintain immediate eligibility, has opened up its own wild West. With an extra year of eligibility afforded all players due to COVID, some Division 1 players are on their fourth and fifth college teams.
Casual fans may wonder where the NCAA is in all of this. Marshal Matt Dillon got the heck out of Dodge. That’s where. The portal and NIL have been abandoned by the NCAA to the whims of the new wild West, enforcement evolving from symptom of severe OCD to afterthought for the folks in Indianapolis. It’s as if the NCAA said, “Fine. You want player compensation? You want us to ease transfer rules? You got it.” Then threw its hands up in the air and sulked away in a tantrum.
The phenomenon known as NIL, which stands for Name, Image and Likeness, has proven truly transformational for college sports. Maybe not discovery-of-fire transformational, but close. Along the lines of the cotton gin, the forward pass, the musket.
It’s changed the game, and not all for the better, as schools figure out ways to bend if not break what rules for it that exist.
But change was necessary, regardless. NCAA athletes existed as indentured servants. Sure, they received access to a free college education and a path to professional ball, but university athletic departments were reaping billions off of players’ — you guessed it — names, images and likenesses. And players weren’t getting a cut.
Take former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who a decade ago caught the wrath of the NCAA in the runup to his Heisman Trophy campaign by accepting $33,000 from two men to sign thousands of autographs they would later sell on the open market.
Manziel knew it was illegal to do so at the time and admitted as much, but the NCAA’s hypocrisy was exposed. A college kid, like him or not, can’t make some money off his own fame?
That hypocrisy was placed under a spotlight after ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas came to Manziel’s defense on Twitter. He posted an image of an Aggie football jersey, with Manziel’s number, listed for sale on the NCAA’s website. It was clearly a Manziel jersey, and the NCAA clearly was profiting off of Manziel’s fame.
In 2021, Manziel explained how it went down for Barstool Sports.
“This guy comes up behind me and was like, ‘Yo, how would you want to make three grand?’ I turn around, I’m like, ‘F— yeah, bro’. I got like 65 bucks in my bank account. I’m waiting on that beginning-of-the-month January stipend check.
“So, I take this guy’s number down, we’re doing it all sneaky, we don’t want to get caught. We’re trying to learn from everybody else who got caught.”
They did get caught, but the NCAA got exposed as well.
Eventually, players sued the NCAA for the right to earn money off their own names or images and won. And the Supreme Court’s majority opinion ruling for the players wasn’t kind to the NCAA.
Plus, more than 29,000 former college players whose images had previously been used in Electronic Arts (EA) college football video games received a class action judgment of $40 million, which came out to an average of $1,200 per athlete with a cap of $7,200 depending on how closely their image was used, per Navigate Research and AthleticDirectorU.
By way of comparison, the players associations for the NFL and NBA receive more than $120 million in combined annual revenue from licensing deals with video game manufacturers EA and Sony and from trading card makers. That comes out to about $48,000 annually per player. (And these numbers don’t account for the latest version of the much more lucrative NBA 2K.)
Now that college athletes can profit off themselves within the rules, schools offering the biggest NIL deals are the ones winning the new bidding wars for high school recruits, as well as portal prizes.
One prominent program supporter from the West Coast told On3 that NIL is enabling unscrupulous boosters essentially to play fantasy football with college athletes.
The transfer portal opening up in early December has added to the chaos. The aftermath of the regular season’s final weekend now is dominated by three factors: players leaving their teams for the portal, the early national signing day for high school recruits — now the primary signing day — and the announcements from those still eligible players harboring aspirations of pro ball that their college careers are done.
That’s a lot to juggle.
Indeed, December is the wild West on steroids. Bowl season — the early bowl season anyway — has been relegated to an early spring practice for most of the 84 of 130 FBS teams that qualify.
Once upon a time, college players treated eligibility like gold; they wanted to pan every last nugget. Wearing the uniform meant something. Not that it doesn’t for those star players who opt out of bowl games to work on enhancing their draft status. But times and priorities have changed.
Teams once could count on a player for a full four seasons. These days, coaches are lucky to squeeze out a couple. And while affording players the ability to freely transfer was the right call, the portal has coddled those not satisfied with their playing time nor willing to put in the extra work.
Like NIL, the portal awaits some tweaking. HawgSports publisher Trey Biddy has suggested players get one free transfer, perhaps after their sophomore year, and the portal should remain closed until the end of the spring semester.
But the NCAA has retreated into the hills. It’ll likely take some sort of Power 5 separation from the NCAA — for football, at least — to bring about any real changes or enforcement.
And then there’s conference realignment, the atomic monster that wouldn’t die. Once Texas, OU, USC and UCLA jump to the sport’s kingpin conferences, will more dominos fall?
Will there be some sort of megaconference breakaway? Will NIL and the transfer portal level playing fields or enable the bluebloods to further entrench?
Lots of questions in college football these days. Not as many corresponding answers, though.