Speaking Wednesday night in Birmingham to more than a hundred local business leaders, Alabama coach Nick Saban once again offered strong thoughts about the evolving use of name, image and likeness revenue in college football.
Saban at one point during a six-minute answer volunteered commentary about Texas A&M’s 2022 recruiting class, which was ranked No. 1 by 247 Sports. Recruits who signed letters of intent last December were the first to benefit from last July’s rule change allowing players to earn revenue from NIL.
“I know the consequence is going to be difficult for the people who are spending tons of money to get players,” Saban said at a 50-day countdown event for the World Games, which will be held in Birmingham in July. “You read about it, you know who they are. We were second in recruiting last year. A&M was first. A&M bought every player on their team. Made a deal for name, image and likeness.
“We didn’t buy one player. Aight? But I don’t know if we’re going to be able to sustain that in the future, because more and more people are doing it. It’s tough.”
Saban has spoken out before about the use of NIL deals in recruiting, which remains prohibited under NCAA rules if there is a direct “pay-to-play” offer being made. At an event in Mobile in February, Saban said, “People are making deals with high school players to go to their school,” although he did not mention any schools by name.
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher later fired back at other SEC coaches he called “clown acts” for questioning the integrity of his program, including Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, who made a more direct reference to speculation that the Aggies were paying their signing class. Saban walked carefully around the topic the same day in February, saying, “I’m not accusing anybody of anything.”
But speaking to Wednesday night’s dinner party in downtown Birmingham, which included representatives from businesses who potentially could partner with Alabama’s collective on NIL deals, Saban raised specific examples of where he saw NIL run awry in addition to Texas A&M.
“We have a rule right now that said you cannot use name, image and likeness to entice a player to come to your school. Hell, read about it in the paper!” Saban said. “I mean, Jackson State paid a guy a million dollars last year that was a really good Division I player to come to school. It was in the paper and they bragged about it. Nobody did anything about it.”
247 Sports’ top-rated prospect in the 2022 class, five-star cornerback Travis Hunter, shocked the college football world when he flipped his commitment from Florida State to Jackson State last December. Jackson State coach Deion Sanders later denied a report that Hunter had received a $1.5 million NIL deal.
Sanders tweeted late Wednesday evening about Saban’s comment, saying, “You best believe I will address that LIE Coach SABAN told tomorrow. I was & awakened by my son @ShedeurSanders that sent me the article stating that WE PAYED @TravisHunterJr a Million to play at @GoJSUTigersFB! We as a PEOPLE don’t have to pay our PEOPLE to play with our PEOPLE.”
Texas A&M and Jackson State were not the only schools mentioned by Saban.
“I mean,” Saban continued Wednesday night. “Those guys from Miami that are going to play basketball there for $400,000, that’s in the newspaper. The guy tells you how he’s doing it.”
Billionaire John Ruiz has used his company, LifeWallet, to fund lucrative NIL deals for dozens of University of Miami athletes.
“But the NCAA can’t enforce their rules because it’s not against the law, and that’s an issue,” Saban continued. “That’s a problem. Unless we get something that protects them from litigation, I don’t know what we’re going to do about it.”
Saban on Wednesday night repeated his belief that NIL is a “great concept” for players and “there is nothing wrong” with the idea of them making money.
“I told our players when this whole thing started to get agents, get representation, so you create opportunities for yourself,” he said. “Our players last year created $3 million worth of opportunities for themselves in doing it the right way. I have no problem with that and nobody had a problem on our team with that because the guys that got the money earned it. There were only 25 guys on our team that had opportunity to earn money.”
But he continued to express frustration in how he believes the relaxed rules are being exploited.
“The issue and the problem with name, image and likeness is coaches try to create an advantage for themselves by going out and saying, ‘OK, how can we use this to our advantage?’” he said. “They created what’s called a collective. A collective is an outside marketing agency that is not tied to the university that’s funded by alumni from the university. They give this collective millions of dollars. That marketing agency then funnels it to the players. Aight? And the coach actually knows how much money is in the collective, so he knows how much he can promise every player.
“That’s not what name, image and likeness was supposed to be. That’s what it’s become and that’s the problem in college athletics right now.”
Following the lead of boosters from several other prominent schools, a Tuscaloosa-based organization, High Tide Traditions, was created last month as a collective to help organize NIL deals for players.
“Now every player is saying, ‘Well, what am I going to get?’ Well, my philosophy is, my job is to create a platform for our players to create value for themselves and their future by becoming better people, by graduating from school and developing a career off the field, and by seeing if they can develop a career off the field and play in the next level in the NFL,” Saban said. “Our players have made $1.7 billion in the NFL since 2010. Aight? So we’ve created a lot of opportunities. We’ve also had one of the highest graduation rates in college rates in college athletics. We had the most guys that graduate inside of four years, so we’ve done a good job of that.
“But now the recruiting, we have players in our state that grew up wanting to come to Alabama that they won’t commit to us unless we say we’re going to give them what somebody else is going to give them. And my theory on that is everything we’ve always done in college athletics has always been equal — your scholarship is equal, they get equal Alston money, they get equal cost of attendance, they get equal academic support, they get equal medical attention. Everything has always been equal.
“I told our players, we’re going to have a collective and everybody is going to get the same amount of opportunity from that collective. You can go earn however much you want.”
Saban, though, draws the line between having current players earn NIL revenue and have it be a driver for prospective players to attend Alabama.
“I tell the recruits the same thing because our job is not to buy you to come to school here,” he said. “I don’t know how you manage a locker room, I don’t know if this is a sustainable model because one of you folks is going to give some player who comes to our school a bunch of money to come to our school. And then you’re going to come to the game in full strut, aight, thinking, I’m going to tell everybody, ‘I got that guy to come to Alabama.’ And then he’s not gonna play and he’s gonna transfer and you’re gonna say, ‘I’m never gonna do this again.’ So I don’t know how it works. I don’t know how you sustain a model like that.”
“I know that we’re going to lose recruits because somebody else is going to be willing to pay them more. But name, image and likeness is something that’s here. And I think the more supporters we have for the University of Alabama in all sports that are willing to sponsor players — whatever you want to call it, use them in their business, to help you do business — that’s going to help our program.”
Saban also dove into the idea of players being paid a salary, which some have viewed as the next logical step for high-level college athletes beyond simply revenue from name, image and likeness.
“The thing that I fear is at some point in time, they’re just going to say, ‘We’re going to have to pay players. If we start paying players, we’re going to have to eliminate sports,” Saban said. “This is all bad for college sports. I mean, we probably have 450 people on scholarship at Alabama, whether they’re women’s tennis players, softball players, golfers, baseball players — non-revenue sports that have, for years and years and years been able to create a better life for themselves because they’ve been able to get scholarships and participate in college athletics.
“That’s what college athletics is supposed to be. It’s not supposed to be something where people come to make money and you make a decision about where you go to school based on how much money you’re going to make. You should make a decision based on where you have the best chance to develop as a person, as a student and as a player, which is what we’ve always tried to major in and we’re going to continue to that. Hopefully there’s enough people out there that will want to do it.”
Handcuffed by a decision from the United States Supreme Court last year, any attempt at repealing loosened NIL or transfer portal rules would likely be met with legal resistance.
“People blame the NCAA,” Saban said. “But in defense of the NCAA, we are where we are because of the litigation that the NCAA gets, like, the transfer portal. Every time somebody wanted to transfer, they applied for a waiver. If the NCAA didn’t give them a waiver to be immediately eligible, they’d file suit so the NCAA would back off and give them a waiver. So they just said, we’re just going to make a rule where everybody can transfer. That’s how that happened. So if the NCAA doesn’t get some protection from litigation — whether we’ve got to get an antitrust or whatever it is — from the federal government standpoint, this is not going to change because they cannot enforce their rules.
“But the NCAA can’t enforce their rules because it’s not against the law, and that’s an issue. That’s a problem. Unless we get something that protects them from litigation, I don’t know what we’re going to do about it.”
Mike Rodak is an Alabama beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @mikerodak.