At the SEC pre-season press conference this week, Ole Miss Head Coach Lane Kiffin discussed the recent changes to college football with the introduction of NIL money and the transfer portal. He said, "We've got professional sports." He explained that there is “free agency”, except with “no salary cap or luxury tax”. He continued, "I don't think that's really good for college football. These massive overhauls of rosters every year really is not in the best interest of college football… a poor system that isn't getting better and now is going to get worse." Obviously, big time college football has grown to a financial point where it seemed unfair that the players were not getting a piece of the multi-billion-dollar pie that they were generating, so they had to do something.
The puzzling thing for me, is why college football is so popular that it produces such big revenues. Objectively, college football is an inferior brand of football to the NFL. There is no debate about that. The step from college football to the NFL is not a step, it is a gigantic leap that very few can make successfully. If the best team in college football lined up against the worst NFL team, the college team would lose decisively. Only a small percentage of Division 1 FBS college football players, end up playing in the NFL, and even a smaller percentage become NFL starters. Most of the Heisman trophy winners turn out to be average NFL players or outright busts.
So, if the product is inferior, then why is it so popular? Why do so many people go to college football games or watch it on TV on Saturday when there is such a drop-off to the product that plays on Sunday? Why do we care about college football games which are essentially the minor leagues for the NFL? Very few people attend Triple-A baseball and the NBA D-League games, and fewer went to the XFL or USFL games. I went to a Durham Bulls minor league baseball game in June and sat right behind home plate. Pitchers were throwing 95-96 miles per hour with nasty breaking stuff. Hitters hit 450-foot home runs. And there were about two thousand people in the stands watching extremely talented players who were a heartbeat away from the show. So, why does a product which is not any better quality than those minor leagues which are barely scrapping by create such interest that it produces billions of dollars of revenue.
The answer – the presumption of amateurism. The only thing that gave college football the credibility that made people want to watch it over the NFL was the presumption that the players were amateurs. The interest in college sports hinges squarely on the tradition of college sports and the concept of the student-athlete. When you turned on the TV and watched major college football, you were watching the best amateur football teams and players in the nation. And for many years, the concept of the amateur student-athlete playing a sport felt more wholesome than watching the professionals play. The college players were playing for the love of the game, while the professionals were playing for a paycheck. The conundrum arises when the amateur status of college sports creates such a tremendous interest in the sports that billions of dollars are generated to the point that it is only fair to spread that money to the players which turns players into professionals thus stripping the veneer of amateurism which created the interest that produced the money in the first place.
With the NIL money that is infecting college sports and the transfer portal which creates free agency, we are turning college sports into professional sports. The major college football player is no longer a student-athlete, he is essentially an employee. He is a paycheck player. He is no longer playing for the pure love of the game; he is playing for the money. It all becomes transactional. Many players are transferring two to three times in their college careers, chasing the bigger NIL money each step of the way. College sports is no longer what it was originally intended on being, and maybe it hasn’t been for a long time. The professionalism that is major college sports is bubbling to the surface. Soon, college football announcers will be discussing players’ NIL money on the air like NFL announcers discuss players’ multi-million-dollar contracts.
Will there be a point when this catches up to college football? When the presumption of amateurism is lifted from college football and it is seen for what it is, a professional minor league system, will the interest begin to wane and the money dry up? Professionals are allowed to compete in the Olympics, and have done so dating back to the 1990’s, and the Olympic Games in sports like basketball and hockey are not that interesting like they had been when amateurs were the only ones allowed to compete. The viewership is way down even though the teams with professionals are arguably some of the most talented teams on the planet. The fans do not care that much because the players do not care that much
Maybe, nobody will care that college football has officially turned in the professional minor league of the NFL. Maybe, the luster of college football is so engrained into our sports culture that it will never fade. But one thing is clear, major college football with a team full of student-athletes giving it their all for their school and the love of the game, no longer exists, and maybe, it hasn’t existed for a long time. Maybe it never existed. Maybe it is a good thing that the façade has been lifted and we see major college football for what it truly has become, a big business. And maybe when it is seen for what it truly is, the interest will diminish to the point that there will not be enough revenue for the players to demand a piece of, and the student-athlete playing for the love of the game will re-emerge to its proper place in our sports culture.
Judd Garrett is a graduate from Princeton University, and a former NFL player, coach, and executive. He has been a contributor to the website Real Clear Politics. He has recently published his first novel, No Wind.