Has college sports’ amateur hour finally ended?


The myth of the student-athlete has been put to rest forever, drowning under tons of cash.

From now on, call them athlete-students, as they getting paid right at the table, not under it.

Jim Martin for the Camera
Jim Martin for the Camera

It’s taken a couple of years of NCAA bureaucratic missteps and court rulings to bring startling changes to college football, which faces a perfect storm of four factors:

  • Greatly higher TV revenue will force the creation of new all-powerful conferences.
  • A handful of players will be paid millions of dollars.
  • Players may change schools through the transfer portal at any time without having to sit out a year, as before.
  • And the NCAA and college presidents have failed to lead.

Remember when boosters had to hide what they were doing, what with handing over cash, cars and/or no-show jobs to help Football University keep its best players?

Today, they can openly hand over money to football players and basketball players, plus give to athletes from non-revenue-generating sports as long as they do so through a NIL (name, image, likeness) collective. No more hiding the truth.

Collectives typically are either for-profit or nonprofit entities often comprised of deep-pocketed fans and alumni, and they are run independently of the schools they are serving. Their supporters — boosters, donors, fans — can pool their resources and give money to players in return for a service, such as appearances at alumni events and autograph signings and through radio and TV advertising, memorabilia, etc.

In essence, they are being paid to play. Technically, those who run collectives may not give players money for actually playing football but may do so for related activities.

The numbers are startling. Opendorse, the largest NIL platform, manages 12 collectives that have raised nearly $50 million combined this year alone. By year-end, Opendorse expects that number to be $100 million.

Opendorse CEO Blake Lawrence believes the 65 Power Five-associated schools could raise more than $500 million in NIL funds alone.

Top college recruits are signing NIL deals worth up to $2 million per year, according to contracts reviewed by The Athletic sports publication.

Other tall pillars are falling as college football undergoes cataclysmic change.

The major conferences are being reinvented, and the end result could be just two football categories: the haves and the have-nots. Millions of dollars will be at stake.

The NCAA’s one-time transfer rule, which took effect in April 2021, allows athletes to transfer to another school and play immediately. The NCAA has lost control of how college football operates; conferences are getting torn up and reinvented. Players, who for years screamed that they should have the freedom to play where they wanted and not be stopped by the “no-transfer” rule, suddenly have that right, good for one use.

The rule effectively has created a year-round free agency for college athletes.

Some starting football players who already have left CU include Brenden Rice, who left to play at USC and is the son of all-time NFL receiving great Jerry Rice, as well as Christian Gonzalez and Mark Perry.

This all brings up a crucial question: What is the fate of the CU football team, winner of a national title in 1990? A title game seems much further away than ever these days.

Will CU remain in the Pac-12, which is losing USC and UCLA to the Big 10? They are moving because the Big 10 is negotiating a new TV contract for a staggering $1.1 billion a year.

“Let’s face it: Television is calling the shots,” Chuck Neinas, former commissioner of the Big 8 and interim commissioner of the Big 12, told the Daily Camera.

Should CU throw in the towel, and stay closer to home and skill level by joining the Mountain West Conference, which includes Colorado State University? CU’s revenue would shrink but they’d enjoy peace of mind for the rest of their football careers. I hope they don’t take that route.

We don’t yet know where each school is going to wind up and whether or not they can hold on to their fan bases. Rearranging conferences won’t necessarily benefit the fans, students or alumni. Some teams — hello, UCLA and USC — will have to travel three time zones away in order to play some of their games.

The elite Power Five schools probably will wind up with the SEC and Big 10 in one bucket, and the other three conferences (ACC, Big 12 and Pac 12) in a less-lucrative situation.

According to The Athletic, a high school star in the 2023 football recruiting class from Long Beach, California, already is negotiating a collective deal for $8 million, according to his attorney.

Basketball players also are affected by all this. One is Nigel Pack, who plans to transfer from Kansas State to Miami. It’s said that he will get a two-year, $800,000 deal that includes a car, from a medical tech company.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban, seven-time national champion, recently called out Texas A&M for “buying every player.” The 70-year-old coach offered up a similar opinion applying to all NIL collectives, saying that they had created a situation where one basically buys players.

Michael Leroy, University of Illinois labor law professor, said, “When you see Nick Saban losing his cool, you see the sure signs that damage is being done at the highest level of athletic competition.”

Tennessee, University of Florida and Texas collectives each have set goals to raise between $25 million and $30 million this year, just to name a few.

To date, Alabama players have been paid more than $3 million. Saban believes that teams will continue to try to poach each other’s players.

This is compounded by the NCAA’s transfer portal.

The bottom line is that the coach essentially has to recruit his own players every year.

Memo to college football: Heal thyself. The college athletic arms race isn’t permanent. But it’s going to get worse. Was college athletics betrayed by the adults who were supposed to protect it?

What will CU’s role be in this brave new world of college athletics? Conference affiliation, TV revenue, player payments and institutional leadership will decide all that.

Jim Martin can be reached at jimmartinesq@gmail.com. He is a former University of Colorado regent who chaired CU’s Subcommittee for Athletics for several years. He also taught Sports Law at CU and the University of Denver.


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