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.
"Tell him to catch it this time."
Some sound advice from Steve Spurrier. 😂 pic.twitter.com/sNI09aadlW
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) February 10, 2019
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.