What if I told you that colleges have always been “buying athletes” and that NIL hasn’t changed that dynamic at all?
If you’re a Power Five football coach, that may come as a surprise. Earlier this week, legendary Alabama football coach, Nick Saban made headlines for claiming that SEC competitor Texas A&M engaged in dishonest recruiting practices and “bought every player” in its current recruiting class with name, image and likeness deals. Saban also claimed that Jackson State head football coach, Deion Sanders, “paid a guy a million dollars last year” to play for him, an allegation that Sanders vehemently denied on Twitter, tweeting “I don’t even make a million!”
Neither of Nick Saban’s claims are easily provable but let’s pretend for a minute that they are undeniably true (and that directly paying players to attend certain universities wasn’t a NCAA violation). How is paying players to attend a school any different than what universities did to lure in recruits before NIL was a thing?
My take is that it’s really not all that different from spending money on flashy facilities to attract recruits, like the University of Alabama itself has been doing for years. In summer of 2020, amid the budgeting chaos that the coronavirus pandemic brought to universities across the country, Alabama Football’s Twitter account advertised its impressive locker room and stadium renovations that totaled $107 million. If you’re questioning whether or not that’s actually a strategy to draw in recruits, look no further than Alabama’s Crimson Tide Foundation’s website, which states a key goal of its current 10-year, $600-million funding initiative is to “transform our facilities and provide the environment necessary to recruit and train the best student-athletes and position our programs as nationally competitive in the future.”
It’s not just Alabama who’s buying college athletes. In 2017, Clemson University built a $55-million-dollar locker room that included a bowling alley and a slide. In 2019, LSU finished its $28 million locker room renovations that included a mini-theatre, sleep pods, and a pool. More recently, in 2021, Auburn University released plans to install flight simulators in their locker rooms as a part of its new Football Performance Center that cost $91.9 million. If these universities are thinking like Alabama, the goal of these renovations is clear: build the best facilities to attract the best athletes.
So, hypothetically, even if college athletes are getting a million dollars to attend a school, who cares? It’s not like they haven’t been bribed before. At least direct payments and NIL deals actually benefit them, rather than the universities.
Katie (M.K.) Lever is a former Division 1 athlete and current doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin where she studies NCAA discourse and policy. She is also a freelance sportswriter and creative writer on the side. She is the author of a new book Surviving the Second Tier available on AMAZON. Follow Katie on Twitter and Instagram: @leverfever.