The Gloves Are Off
by George Somerville
5th June 2022
Saban v Fisher :
A Saturdays In Athens Special
If you read my weekly SEC musings throughout the season, you know how much headline action and shenanigans the South Eastern Conference creates. While the offseason is rarely quiet with early signing periods, Spring & Fall camps and the always entertaining SEC media days keep us busy well ahead of the season start, there is usually a period where things on the football front go quiet.
June is the period when I get to put my feet up, sit on the porch and drink cold beer until around mid July. Unless something huge grabs all of our attention and wrestles me out of hibernation.
Lest you have been living in a cave these last few weeks, the spat which Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher have just played out in public has been the biggest story the SEC has seen in quite some time.
But yet, the public nature of this and indeed the players in this act are only half the story. As is normally the case, money is at the root of all evil and this is no exception. This is a story about money and lots of it. Who has it, who doesn’t and where it’s going…
Setting the scene
So let’s start at the beginning. This whole episode is about money and in particular NIL money. Since the Name Image and Likeness Rights floodgates opened, it has at times felt like the Wild West and the Gold Rush combined.
I will start by saying this – my belief is that Student Athletes should be reimbursed for their participation in sports. The argument that education is a just reward doesn’t cut it in this multi-billion sports industry. With the current concept that the best way to do this is to let players cash in on their image rights, money has been pouring into college athletics of late.
Although this is where the first contradiction appears. The first of many I may add. Money has been in college athletics for years, in fact decades before this. Just look back to SMU’s “death penalty” in 1987, or Reggie Bush handing back his 2005 Heisman Trophy.
So let’s be honest, College athletics has been in this pickle for some time now – the only difference today is that there is a legitimacy to student athletes receiving payments.
Of course, I should make it clear that it is not the schools per se that are paying the student athletes. No.
Money is pouring into college athletics via “collectives” – entities, principally booster led set up to provide endorsement opportunities for college students looking to take advantage of their image. All of which is allowed under current legislation. Except that a cross section of college athletics points out that recruitment is being skewed towards and following the money. And this is not permitted under the current NCAA legislation.
However, the NCAA has been demoted to a bit part player here given a succession of successful litigations by boosters stating the contradictions of restricting student athletes from cashing in on their image rights.
Which brings us to where we are today. A sport divided. Those who are using the laws to help them build teams and those who say this is a dark road to travel down – the ruination of the sport in some ways.
The Saban v Fisher war of words depicts the opposing views of this argument.
Saban Strikes Out
Last month, Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban had quite a bit to say about the state of college athletics and in particular the recruitment of athletes now that NIL is well and truly on the scene.
This is not the first time that Nick Saban has been vocal about the state of his sport. Saban has expressed his concerns about NIL before – in fact at last years SEC Media days. He also spoke out about the increased use of the transfer portal and how this would impact both student athletes and schools alike. The fact that NIL and the transfer portal are inextricably linked. Saban was warning the games’ powers that left unfettered, these changes would impact the game forever. However what was different about Saban’s most recent comments was that it was far more pointed than before.
While many throughout the game are of the opinion that Saban is defending his turf – which he almost certainly is – others suggest that Saban has fired his latest warning shot. Saban is saying that without intervention the sport is on a path to destruction. Saban is not alone in this view but he is a voice that people sit up and take notice of. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has also been heavily criticised for saying too that college athletics is wandering down a dark alley.
A significant number of those detractors say that Saban and Swinney don’t want to see players being paid. Both have said this is far from the case and indeed the actions of both Alabama and Clemson suggest that these schools recognise the place that NIL plays in college sports going forward. As it should.
However, both point out the impact that it is having on recruitment, with players choosing their academic and sporting destinations because of and not in addition to academic and sporting achievement possibilities. Saban has pointed out the NIL opportunities some of his student athletes have attracted at Alabama – most noticeably quarterback Bryce Young’s $1m deal last season. But a deal he secured after coming to Alabama not as a result of. Saban & Co say there is a significant difference.
Not all agree.
Which brings us nicely to the bru-ha-ha of the recent tete-a-tete between Nick Saban and Texas Aggies head coach, Jimbo Fisher.
"A&M Bought Every Player On That Team"
Speaking at “50 days until the World Games” – a business leaders event in Birmingham Alabama, Coach Saban was asked about his views on how NIL was impacting the game. The Alabama Head Coach had some words to say on the topic. In fact his response was seven minutes long, which ruffled some feathers along the way.
During his response Saban talked about his fears for College sports by going down this route,
“the thing I fear is that at some point in time they are going to say that we need to start paying players. If we start paying players we will have to start eliminating sports. We have almost 450 people on scholarship at Alabama – whether they are women tennis players, women softball players, golfers, baseball players…..non revenue sports that for years and years and years have been able to create a better life for themselves because they have been able to get scholarships and participate in college athletics”.
Coach Saban went on,
“That’s what college athletics is supposed to be. Its not supposed to be where people come and make money and make a decision about where you go to school based on how much money you make. You should make the decision based on where you have the best chance to develop as a person, as a student and as a player which we have always tried to major in and we’re going to continue to do that. Hopefully there’s enough people out there that want to do it“
However, it was the comments that followed on from this that grabbed the headlines and got others, including fellow head coaches hot under the collar. In fact Coach Saban did something he rarely does – he called others out on their use of NIL. Coach Saban said this of Texas A&M,
“we were second in recruiting last year. (Texas) A&M was first. A&M bought every player on that team. Made a deal for Name Image and Likeness. We didn’t buy one player – but I don’t know if we are going to be able to sustain that in the future, because more and more people are doing it”,
Coach Saban continued,
“People blame the NCAA but in defence of the NCAA, we are where we are because of the litigation that the NCAA gets, like the transfer portal – everybody that wanted to transfer applied for a waiver. But then if the NCAA didn’t give them a waiver that made them immediately eligible they filed suit, so the NCAA would back off and give them a waiver. So they said, “we’re just going to make a rule where everyone can transfer”,
Saban continued his monologue,
“we have a rule just now that says you cannot use Name, Image and Likeness to entice someone to come to your school ….but we read about it in the paper. Jackson State paid a guy a million dollars – he was a really good Division I recruit to come to Jackson State. It was in the papers and they bragged about it”
Which pretty much sets out the case for the accused. It was somewhat unusual for Nick Saban to single out A&M and Jackson State. In fact we know that there are sour relationships not just in college football but across all sports. It’s what makes sports interesting snd cut throat. But this seemed personal, at least it seemed so to Jimbo Fisher.
In this case it did not take long for Texas A&M and Head Coach Jimbo Fisher to hit back.
"Some People Think They’re God"
Texas A&M coach, Jimbo Fisher did not take kindly to Coach Saban’s comments. Not at all. In fact this might be the understatement of the year. The Aggies mustered a hastily arranged press conference after Saban’s comments to give Head Coach Fisher and Athletics Director, Ross Bjork a platform to respond. And respond they did, setting the scene for what became one of the the games most bizarre moments and something not forgotten for a long time.
‘Some people think they’re God. Go dig into how ‘God’ did his deal and find out about a guy… a lot of things you don’t want to know. We build him up to be this czar of football. Go dig into his past, or (talk to) anybody who’s ever coached with him’
said a clearly irate Jimbo Fisher, before continuing
“It’s a shame that we have to do this. It’s really despicable – it’s despicable that somebody can say things about somebody and, more importantly, 17-year-old kids. You’re taking shots at 17-year-old kids and their families. That they broke state laws, that we bought every player on this group. We never bought anybody. No rules were broken. Nothing was done wrong.”
Which is all true. Except and I don’t want to sound pedantic here, but that’s not what Coach Saban said. Saban was specific in his criticism – he attacked the use of NIL to recruit players.
Which makes Fishers outburst so bizarre is the way in which he reacted. Fisher reacted as if College Station had been set on fire, so this was clearly an issue which had been festering for some time.
Fisher decided not to leave it there. He then went on to say something that raised eyebrows, especially inside SEC Headquarters. Fisher said,
“You can call me anything you want to call me. You can’t call me a cheat. I don’t cheat and I don’t lie. I learned that when I was a kid. If you did, your old man slapped you upside the head. Maybe somebody should have slapped him.”
Sankey Speaks Out, And Saban Apologises
With the SEC often setting itself out as the leading conference both from a sporting and professional perspective, it was no great surprise that SEC Commissioner, Greg Sankey felt the need to intervene in this the most public of disagreements. Sankey would have felt deeply uncomfortable with two of his highest profile head coaches airing their dirty laundry in public. Sankey said via statement issued by the South Eastern Conference,
“A hallmark of the SEC is intense competition within an environment of collaboration. Public criticism of any kind does not resolve issues and creates a distraction from seeking solutions for the issues facing college athletics today. There is tremendous frustration concerning the absence of consistent rules from state to state related to name, image and likeness. We need to work together to find solutions and that will be our focus at the upcoming SEC Spring Meetings.”
And with both Head Coaches receiving a censure, Commissioner Sankey played the part of the scolding parent with his message that “enough is enough” made loud and clear.
Appearing on ESPN radio, Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban offered up his apology,
“I should have never singled anybody out, and I apologize for that part of it…… It’s the whole system, and is this a sustainable system, and is it good for college football?”
Was that enough for Jimbo Fisher? Well, not really. Jimbo didn’t really grasp the olive branch, rather telling Saban where he could put it.
“Not going to. We’re done,”
said Fisher in relation to a question about whether Fisher had spoken to Saban.
Fisher doubled down by making comparisons with Saban to Fisher’s mentor, Bobby Bowden while at Florida State.
“He’s the greatest ever, huh? When you’ve got all the advantages, it’s easy. … You coach with people like Bobby Bowden and learn how to do things. You coach with other people and learn how not to do things. There’s a reason, people, I ain’t back and worked for [Saban]. Don’t want to be associated with him”.
Which felt a whole lot like Christmas cards ain’t passing between Tuscaloosa and College Station this year.
So what does this mean for the SEC and College football?
So what happens now?
NIL has divided college athletics with Saban’s comments accurately describing one end of the spectrum of views. While many have campaigned for college athletes to be compensated for their participation, now that there is a level of restitution others are worried about the impact that this is having on the game. A balance needs to be found.
Certainly there are examples of players who’s decisions about where they go to school appears driven by the NIL opportunities afforded to them. NCAA legislation states that NIL should not be used for recruitment purposes – which is exactly the allegations being levied against TAMU. Which brings us back to the point that those in the game, including Saban and Clemson Head Coach, Dabo Swinney are concerned that the money flowing in to the game is doing so unregulated and will become the ruination of college athletics.
Ole Miss Head Coach, Lane Kiffin has proposed a NIL cap to help curb the spending. Given the litigious nature of those who have pressed for no restrictions on the transfer portal and NIL itself, you would expect any such concept to be challenged through the courts. But what is the alternative?
Only recently, Ohio State Head Coach, Ryan Day told business leaders in Columbus that the program needed $13m to keep their roster intact. This takes the argument further as it suggests student athletes are going to transfer if they don’t get paid. It also, alarmingly for some, puts a number on the table. Thus far the cost has been unclear. Now with Day putting a number on the table we can start to understand the levels involved. Day’s fears are not unfounded – OSU lost quarterback Quinn Ewers before even a ball was thrown in anger last year. Although I should point out that Ewers signed his NIL deal prior to leaving Columbus for Austin.
But the threat is real.
“One phone call and they’re out the door”
Day said of the concern he has for the players on his roster.
“I’m not trying to sound the alarm. I’m just trying to be transparent about what we’re dealing with”.
Continued the Buckeyes Head Coach.
So is this sour grapes from those at the top who now feel threatened? Well, that’s Jimbo Fisher’s response. In fact Fisher suggested more, that Saban’s comments were a call to arms for Alabama’s boosters to step up and match the ammunition other schools have provided.
In support of that theory, Ryan Day also alluded to the threat of being left behind when he said,
“if the speed limit’s 45mph and you drive 45 mph a lot of people are going to drive past you…..if you drive too fast, you’re going to get pulled over”
Which seems to nicely summarise the whole situation.
There is spice between Jimbo and Nick, especially given that they coach in the same conference with both teams meeting annually. October 8th is now the date circled on everyone’s calendar when the Aggies travel to Tuscaloosa. With Fisher handing Saban his first defeat from an ex coaching assistant last season when TAMU defeated Bama 41-38, this was already being built up as a revenge game. Now? This game has taken on a whole new dimension.
But yet, I don’t think we are done talking about the impact of NIL between now and then. This is a story which will run and run and run.
A GLASWEGIAN LIVING IN LONDON, GEORGE IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL FAN WHO FOLLOWS THE ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE. HE PROVIDES CFB CONTENT FOR THE TOUCHDOWN AND IS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.