Photo Credit: Carol M. Highsmith (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A-Day_Game_football_scrimmage_for_University_of_Alabama,_with_coach_Nick_Saban_analyzing_every_move._Tuscaloosa,_Alabama_LCCN2010640630.tif)
Oh, Nick Saban, you just couldn’t let other people have nice things, could you? In a conference in Birmingham, Alabama last Wednesday, Saban went on a lengthy rant where he accused Texas A&M of circumventing Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) regulations to acquire the top ranked recruiting class in the country. Poor Alabama was relegated to second.
Saban didn’t stop at A&M, though. He went on to direct his ire towards lowly Jackson State, a historically black university in Mississippi being coached by none other than “Prime Time” Deion Sanders.
“We have a rule right now that says you cannot use name, image and likeness to entice a player to come to your school,” said Saban, “Hell, read about it in the paper. I mean, Jackson State paid a guy a million dollars last year that was a really good division one player to come to their school. It was in the paper, and they bragged about it. Nobody did anything about it.”
There’s only one problem with Saban’s statement: it’s false. Jackson State did not pay Travis Hunter, the top recruit Saban was referring to, to play for Jackson State. The sum Saban referred to is also incorrect, as Hunter and Sanders have both insisted.
Now, many of you might be asking yourselves, “What is NIL? How does this affect my college sport experience? Why is Nick Saban picking on a tiny college in Jackson, Mississippi that even the most ardent college football fans would have a hard time remembering their mascot (by the way, it's the Tigers)?” Let me fill you in.
NIL, as it’s become affectionately known, isn’t a new concept. In fact, it’s something that every person in the United States has been able to benefit from and does. Everyone except for college athletes, that is, until 2021, when the Supreme Court ruled in NCAA v. Alston that the NCAA could no longer restrict athletes’ compensation. Finally, college athletes, just like any other student, could make money off their name, image and likeness. The entire country has been doing this, now college athletes get to cash in.
What NIL does not mean is “pay to play,” or the idea that college programs are actually compensating the athletes directly to play for their specific college team. Instead, athletes are now allowed to take part in money-making activities like selling autographed photos and jerseys, sponsoring products and brands, and using platforms like Twitter and Instagram to send out paid social media posts or using Cameo to send out “shout out” videos to fans.
As to why Saban is so furious with Texas A&M and Jackson State? That’s obvious. A&M’s head coach Jimbo Fisher and Sanders are beating Saban at his own game.
For years and years, Alabama has dominated college football recruiting. Since 2011, Alabama has had the top recruiting class nine times, never finishing worse than fifth, according to 247Sports.com. Even in 2022, Saban and the Crimson Tide have the second ranked recruiting class, only behind the aforementioned Fisher and the Aggies.
So, what’s the big deal? Saban has always portrayed himself as a huge competitor. Why is he so threatened by A&M and Jackson State?
Because Saban can see the writing on the wall with NIL. He knows that his position at the top of the college football landscape is precarious. He needs more money.
College football recruiting is a zero-sum game. Every player you fail to recruit to your school is a potential threat to your school’s position and a potential boon for a rival. The political landscape of college football is so cut-throat and adversarial, you’d have a hard time distinguishing it from Europe before the First World War.
Fisher and Sanders, for their part, refused to let Saban have the last word.
“It’s really despicable,” said Fisher in regard to Saban’s comments Wednesday, “It’s despicable that somebody can say things about somebody, more importantly 17-year-old kids. You’re taking shots at 17-year-old kids and their families, that they broke state laws … we never bought anybody. No rules were broken. Nothing was done wrong.”
“Coach Saban wasn’t talking to me. Coach Saban wasn’t talking to Jimbo Fisher,” said Sanders, “He was talking to his boosters. He was talking to his alumni. He was talking to his givers. He was trying to get money. That’s what he was doing. He was just using us to get to where he was trying to get to.”
They’re both spot on. Saban isn’t stupid. He knows what A&M and Jackson State did was completely within the bounds of the law. But he has to pretend like he’s exasperated with the college football landscape so that he can authentically appeal to the people who can give him the means to compete in this current landscape.
Fisher, meanwhile, continued to hammer Saban, calling him a “narcissist” and calling for reporters and journalists to dig into Saban’s past. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long for someone to go there.
College sports, especially big money sports like basketball and football, have always, always, been inherently corrupt. Amateurism, for its entire existence, has been fraudulent and immoral. For over one hundred years, college programs have made millions, even billions, off the backs of unpaid laborers. Saban and Alabama are no different.
What Saban would love for you to believe, is that Alabama has always done things the right way, has never paid a player under the table, has never violated any recruiting statutes or regulations, and has always been a shining example of college athletic excellence.
I say BS. Saban and Alabama are no different than any other college program in America. Is it possible that Saban has plausible deniability? Sure. Just like every other college coach in America.
At the end of the day, Saban only lashed out because he can see that Alabama’s stranglehold on college football is loosening. NIL levels the playing field. Travis Hunter didn’t choose Jackson State just because he was promised an NIL deal. That certainly was a factor, but Hunter, who plays cornerback, chose Jackson State because he could earn a legitimate income AND be coached by the greatest cornerback in football history in Sanders, all while elevating a historically black university in the process.
This is the new college football reality. Amateurism was a greater exemption than any college athletic director could have ever imagined. The NCAA and its directors became immeasurably wealthy. College football coaches today routinely out-earn top government officials. Per ESPN, 28 college football coaches are the best paid employees in their state. There’s no putting Pandora back in her box. NIL is here to stay. Nick Saban might have to use some of that $8.9 million in taxpayer money to wipe his tears away.