College Football, Florida Gators

Collegiate “free agency” isn’t the biggest threat to college football

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ESPN posted an article yesterday discussing new transfer rules in College Football and the tension between coaches building programs with the desire of players for freedom to seek out the best opportunity for them.

The article rightly points out that this tension is not going to go away. Players are going to continue to push the envelope as they gain power in a sport that for too long has treated them as a completely replaceable commodity.

The backdrop to the article is the waiver received by Georgia transfer QB Justin Fields to play immediately at Ohio State last week. Granting Fields that waiver is seen as moving beyond granting players eligibility when their school has been sanctioned to granting it under more nebulous circumstances.

But there was another event last week that was much more celebrated by college football fans that may end up being the bigger threat to the collegiate game.

I watched with fascination on Twitter this past Saturday night as the Alliance of American Football (AAF) made its debut.

Here in Philadelphia, I wasn’t able to watch the Apollos game. Instead, I got the privilege of watching the San Diego Fleet against the San Antonio Commanders. I really wasn’t paying too much attention until this happened.

But lots of Florida fans did tune in to see the Apollos play. The ratings of the two games rivaled that of a pretty significant NBA game. At least in Florida, I’m sure being able to see Steve Spurrier work his magic again was a pretty significant draw.

I mean, the man certainly knows how to entertain.

And that’s a problem for the business of college football.

That’s because what college football offers its players (and the NFL) is marketing. Tim Tebow isn’t popular because of his time with the Broncos, Jets or Patriots. He’s not playing for the Mets because he is a former NFL player.

He has the following he does because of his play at the University of Florida.

So imagine a scenario where Tebow comes to Gainesville in 2006 and contributes to a National Championship. He then becomes the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy.

The NFL still wouldn’t let him declare for the draft after that season. But what if the AAF did? Not only that, but what if the AAF allowed him to sign marketing deals that paid significantly more than his AAF salary?

It’s not hard to see how this could be a real problem for college football.

The reason that college basketball is so much harder to follow at this point is the one-and-done nature of the sport. You just can’t follow the same guys for more than a year, and consequently, they feel like mercenaries for the school.

I have a lot more affection for Mike Miller and Al Horford than I do for Bradley Beal.

That doesn’t make Beal a bad guy. He did what I would have done in his situation. But the connection that I feel with the basketball program doesn’t come close to the one I feel with the football program.

The AAF is uniquely positioned at this point in time to be able to cause the same kind of shift in college football.

Jordan Scarlett needs a place to play because he was suspended for credit card fraud? Will Grier needs a place to play because he got popped for PEDs? Trevor Lawrence has won two straight titles at Clemson and wants to increase the level of competition?

All sorts of reasons pop to mind immediately.

Can’t make the grades? Want high-level training without hours restrictions? Need to support a family with more than an athletic scholarship?

If the AAF is willing to increase pay (right now, players have 3-year, $250,000 contracts) and pay insurance policies guaranteeing income lost due to injury for NFL caliber players, it’s a better deal than college.

This is especially true given the backdrop of catastrophic injuries that can occur in football. SEC fans no doubt remember the injury that essentially ended Marcus Lattimore’s career, and we saw it again this year with UCF QB McKenzie Milton. How much money have those two lost?

College football has made a lot of players rich by making them household names. But it’s made a lot of coaches richer. That imbalance is what is driving the increase in transfers. Players are finally realizing that if Jimbo Fisher can get $75 million guaranteed by hopping from Florida State to Texas A&M, they should be able to hop too.

Eventually, that hopping will lead to the AAF.

The speed with which the NCAA has adjusted to this changing landscape has been incredibly slow. Somehow the status quo was left in place even though the United State Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the NCAA’s compensation rules were “an unlawful restraint of trade” in the Ed O’Bannon case. More recently, the NCAA was one of the organizations supporting Northwestern’s defense against its own players’ attempts to unionize.

And look at the reaction of some college football coaches from that ESPN article now that the NCAA finally is beginning to open up its rules to allow players some say in where and whom they play for.

“In how many households are the teenagers making decisions? Why are we sitting here saying they need more leverage?” – Gary Patterson, TCU head coach

“How do you learn to overcome adversity and fight through battles and learn to compete? I worry about that for our sport; I worry about that for kids and our country.” – James Franklin, Penn State head coach

“The hopscotch approach to college really hinders their (the players) ability to have success in life.” – David Shaw, Stanford head coach

Yikes! So let me get this straight. Gary Patterson has no problem with high school seniors making decisions that could make or cost them millions of dollars straight out of high school, yet it’s a huge concern when they decide they made a bad choice a year later?

This reeks of paternalism, and of an organization that is at-odds with its (gasp!) workforce. More than anything, it indicates an organization that is going to struggle to change fast enough to adjust to a significantly changing landscape.

And into that vacuum steps the AAF (or the XFL or some other entity).

The AAF has already proven to be really progressive in its rules. The elimination of kick-offs means that they are already a step ahead of the NCAA and NFL on player safety. The “onsides kick” attempt of a fourth-and-12 from the 25-yard line is way more exciting than a traditional onsides kick. The transparency shown during replay reviews is something that other leagues are going to have to adopt, and soon.

More than anything, it indicates that the league is willing to change things that have been sacred cows in the NFL and college football for a really long time. This is a problem if college football continues to argue about whether some level of transfer freedom is appropriate for its players.

Because the AAF was really savvy by starting its league by making sure that their coaches were a draw when they couldn’t afford to do that with the players. They already came for big-time coaches who were available on the market. Spurrier, Mike Martz, Rick Neuheisel, Mike Singletary and Dennis Erickson are all high profile guys who lend the league instant credibility.

There’s only one way to increase that credibility further. They’re going to come for the players next.

Featured image used under Creative Commons License courtesy greatdegree


  1. The league will fold after 1 year ! The crowds were pityful for an opening game or any game ! I love spurrier but he only coaches one team the other games were boring to say the least ! It is zero threat to college football until they have 90,000 watch a game in person

  2. PMB-BTR

    Whether the AAF folds, or not, will be largely dictated by TV money, not fans in the stands.

  3. Carey Freeman

    Good points Will. But I think we overlook the positives of an NFL minor league system in the long run, which is what these leagues (at least the AAF) are positioning themselves to be. I personally have wanted something like this for years because I, like many, am getting sick of guys who seem to be just biding their time in college while they keep on eye solidly on the pros. I understand the mentality, because they literally have no alternative at this point. Further, if they ever become established as a viable minor league, then we can just make football rules the same as baseball. And for those who think this will hurt college football I say “hogwash”. Like baseball, the players who commit to college will be fully bought in and, like baseball, the list of quality players who choose the college route will be a large and talented one. Key point, they will be here because they want to be here not because they have no other option. Just some food for thought.

  4. Carey Freeman

    P.S. Why is everyone so scared to discuss Fields and the complete and utter cynicism of is ploy to get around the transfer rules? Literally nobody is talking about this. Hell, even Gator Country shut down our thread on him. Have we reached the point where playing the race card doesn’t just automatically win the hand, but forces everyone to leave the table – with their chips still on it? His play, IMO, is shameful and disgusting and it’s sad that nobody is calling it out for what it is.

    • Will Miles

      In my view, Fields (or any other player) should be allowed to leave whenever he wants with no penalty. If the university doesn’t want to classify him as an employee, he should have the same rights as any other student to attend a different school and participate in extra curricular activities. If the schools don’t like that situation, then they can provide workers comp. and paid contracts with buyouts and/or non-compete clauses. The reality likely is that the players have finally brought lawyers to the table who are threatening lawsuits if the waivers aren’t granted and the NCAA has caved.

      • Carey Freeman

        I see these as separate issues. I agree somewhat with respect to player movement but the last thing I want to see is teams recruiting other team’s players and/or having to re-recruit your team every year. I would like to see the institutions have more skin in the game, like longer scholarship commitments. I’ve seen some decent ideas, but still don’t know how we grant the freedom of movement without bringing on utter chaos. The Fields ploy, though, is the most cynical (and insulting on so many levels) I’ve ever witnessed and I think its more than fair to call it out for what it is and to call out the NCAA (and much of the media) for caving to it. But thanks for the reply.

        • Will Miles

          Sure. I suggested something a couple years ago akin to my agreement for intellectual property when I was a graduate student (gone since SEC Country no longer exists) where players would be able to have endorsement deals through the university. A furtherance of that could be that the player would have to pay that back if he transferred.

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