Are college football Saturdays as we know them a thing of the past? (Dr. Michael Huang Photography)
As far as NIL and college sports is concerned, be careful what you ask for. You might just end up with a product that stinks to high heaven. Out-of-control collectives, unrestricted free agency, and transfers jumping ship at the first sign of discontent has the system precariously poised to crash and burn. For us die-hard fans, those halcyon memories of Saturdays down south are fading quickly into the distant past.
“It’s completely changed the college game,” Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops said in his appearance on Kentucky Sports Radio earlier today. “Is this really what we signed up for? Is this what we want?”
The saddest part of all is that we all saw this coming. In our capitalistic society, most everyone agreed that not paying the players was totally un-American. For all the fannies they put in the seats, why shouldn’t they get a piece of the pie? It’s not enough that they get tuition, books, room and board, private tutoring, first class travel, deluxe hotel accommodations, and state-of-the-art medical care paid for, players should also have the right to capitalize immediately on their individual fame and stardom. Woe to the person who tried to say otherwise.
“I’m all for the players,” Stoops emphasized over and over. “It makes total sense for players that are in your program and that have helped you build your brand—helped you build the University of Kentucky—to share in some of the money. Everybody is for the players.”
Stoops is right, but it’s about much more than just the players. The NFL talks frequently of “protecting the shield.” In other words, the organization itself has overriding inherent value, and no individual or event or policy within the organization should jeopardize its collective worth.
With NIL, the shield of college athletics has been irreparably damaged as the pendulum has swung in one fell swoop into the corner of the defenseless student-athlete. No longer are they indentured servants slaving away in preparation for a promising future career. NIL now becomes their career, and we’re all the worse because of it.
“To think, in this day and age, players walk in, and they’re really interested [in your school],” Stoops tried to explain. “They love what you’ve done. Bottom line— ‘How much can you get me?’ These high-profile transfers that are out there, why are they out there? Because they’re unrestricted free agents. They’re going to go to the highest bidder…You’re looking at five thousand unrestricted free agents a year. Is it sustainable to pay all those guys?”
Of course not. In looking to protect the individual’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of money, we lost sight of the worth of the organization. The NCAA, even as the evil empire to which it was frequently portrayed, had much more inherent worth than we all may have given it credit for. I’m not talking about the cash the greedy administrators at the top of the food chain siphoned off their bounty. I’m talking about the priceless joy and pleasure derived by the millions of average Joes out there who lived to experience the product.
The product, however, is no more. At least I no longer recognize it. Neither do all the lunch pail-toting, blue collar guys, the middle-class executives, or the soccer moms who so looked forward to college football Saturdays or madness in March. The shield of amateur sports has been flippantly cast aside. Crush the shield, and you might as well drag a dagger through the heartbeat of America.
Look, I get it. The superstar athlete raised in poverty deserves a chance to make it big. Players in the program deserve to be compensated. It’s bad optics whenever you argue against any of that. Just don’t forget what the sanctity of amateur sports means to the rest of the people watching from the peanut gallery.
I know that sounds naive and a bit self-serving. It may even sound communistic. But it’s true. The collective good of the whole is far more important than a few top-tier athletes making their millions a bit ahead of schedule. In today’s society, where it’s all about the money, we want more than ever to cheer on student-athletes playing solely for the love of their school—or at least for the love of the game. That’s critical to our sports psyche.
“Look at Luke Fortner going to the NFL, [or] Josh Allen,” Stoops reminded us. “They come out of nowhere. They’re two-star, three-star, [and] not getting any money. But yet [they] develop themselves into an NFL player. That’s what you like. That’s what I love about college football.”
Unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. But what you can do is mitigate the damage before it’s too late. The powers that be are making their case in front of Congress as we speak. Legislation that was initially enacted to make sure college athletes had spare change for pizza can still be tweaked to facilitate that goal. If you fail at the federal level, however, chaos is sure to ensue. Ban the collectives, put caps on the NIL deals, and limit what goes on in the ever-revolving transfer portal.
And if all else fails, then just keep playing to win the game.
“We’re not giving up,” Stoops assured us. “We’re gonna fight, we’re gonna punch, and we’re gonna play by the rules. And I’ll fight for our players. I’ll do whatever I have to do to keep our program on the upswing.”
Adapt or die. In this age of uncertainty, that’s about all we can rightfully ask for.
If you enjoy my writings as a University of Kentucky fan, check out my latest book, KENTUCKY PASSION, available in bookstores and online at https://www.amazon.com/Kentucky-Passion-Wildcat-Wisdom-Inspiration/dp/1684351669 . Follow me on Twitter @KYHuangs.