Ubben: Exploding cash for faculty athletes could be a plus, not only a trigger for concern

College football has changed, and for a variety of reasons, the toothpaste looks unlikely to go back in the tube.

Whether they have the money or not, coaches are dealing with sticker shock and having more conversations about price tags than ever before.

“We get asked that, I would say, about 75 percent of the time. With the kids we’re recruiting, it’s more, ‘What are you guys doing with NIL? What’s going on with that?’” a Power 5 coach told The Athletic.

The money for players is unprecedented in college sports. Rumors of under-the-table funds consistently finding their way to players — often as cash in a duffel bag or no-show jobs, sometimes as casino chips, sometimes delivered via other creative avenues, depending on which tall such one’s ears choose to believe — always have been the norm in the sport.

But this much money has never flowed this freely. Players always have held value, despite many inside the sport arguing otherwise for decades. Now, they’re finally being allowed to capitalize on it.

“I was a little surprised at first when collectives were being so bold about what they were doing, but now I’m not surprised at all since the NCAA looks like they’re not going to really do much or haven’t done much, ” said Mit Winter, an attorney who has done work in the name, image and likeness space. “As long as that’s the case, then there’s really no downside to doing what’s going on right now.”

Some might call it a recruiting inducement. Some might call it NIL. I call it overdue justice after decades of arbitrary rules preventing athletes from making money during the precious few years when most of them are most valuable and most visible.

The arithmetic of recruiting has changed. How coaches must deal with players has changed. Everyone who spends time inside a college athletic facility is wrestling with how to adapt, groping in the dark for the best new way to operate in a world that looks unrecognizable compared to just a year ago.

But for all the concerns from those people who suddenly have far less control than they once did over their rosters, the money now flowing through college sports will have some unquestionably positive effects.

Three months ago, coaches were in crisis about an overflowing transfer portal and the now-impossible task of managing roster numbers while attempting to appease the individuals who collectively formed that roster.

Ironically, the newest concern might help fix the old one. And improve the quality of play. Many of the deals offered to players by collectives are multi-year contracts. It’s a rudimentary version of what multiple coaches suggested to The Athletic as a fix to plug the portal: Pay players and make them employees.

They’re not employees in the sport’s current state, but players who don’t see the field early in their careers would have far less motivation to seek greener pastures if they get off to a slow start out of high school.

An impatient, highly recruited freshman would be out the door in a world of college football with a transfer portal and without free-flowing cash. Now, that player’s value elsewhere would almost certainly pale in comparison to what he’s already making on his current campus from a deal he signed on his way out of high school.

A growing number of players have hundreds of thousands of reasons to stay. Some will have millions.

They’ll be making money, unlikely to make more elsewhere and will be more likely than ever to stick around, develop and try to climb up the depth chart rather than leave and most likely make a fraction of what they could by staying.

People are largely motivated by and often make decisions based on compensation for their effort. Who, other than every adult on the planet for its entire existence, could have imagined a world governed by such an idea?

A player gets paid and a coach can sleep a little more soundly knowing his roster is a lot less likely to disintegrate at any moment. And for players who are established?

Last year, 31 of the 128 early entrants (24.2 percent) into the NFL Draft went undrafted. And that number was lower than usual.

In 2020, 30 percent of early entrants (36 of 120) went undrafted. In 2019: 34 percent (49 of 114). In 2018: 33 percent (40 of 123).

Most of those players left knowing they couldn’t make meaningful money in college. That’s no longer true for many athletes facing a decision to turn pro, and it could mean dozens of talents elect to play one or two more years in college football rather than embark on a brief, fruitless pro career.

The draft this year has 100 early entrants, including 73 who didn’t earn a degree. Last year, 98 players without degrees entered the draft.

It’s impossible to know how much the influx of money into college football helped trim that number by almost 25 percent, but before this year, if a player submitted his name to the draft advisory committee, his choices essentially were to make little to no money in college, a decent amount of money in the pros or a lot of money in the pros.

As the money in college sports grows, so does the incentive to stay as long as possible. In college basketball, big-time talents who aren’t also big-time pro prospects like Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe and UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez already have elected to return, decisions that just a year or two ago would have been unthinkable and inadvisable.

“If he comes back to school, there will be a multimillion-dollar deal on the table,” Tshiebwe’s agent, Nate Conley, said in February.

Now, the math will get a bit more complicated. And college sports are set to benefit.

The rookie minimum in the NFL is $705,000, but that’s only if a player makes the 53-man roster. Players get to keep their signing bonus, but very little of the rest of the money is guaranteed for players who aren’t early-round draft picks.

Instead, players will have a much more enticing choice to return. They’ll be paid to try and grow their stock instead of rushing to make a fraction of what they might with another year of development. Coaches win by keeping players, players win by making more money and continuing to pursue a degree/backup plan, and fans win by getting one more year to cheer for a valuable player. The entire sport wins.

College football’s future is uncertain. The influence of money has changed the sport. It will look and feel different moving forward. The same is true of coaches’ jobs.

But not all the changes should inspire fear.

— Max Olson contributed to this report.

(Photo: Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

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