NIL is already making the rich richer. Imagine if Alabama football could add scholarships, too | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Imagine that you have been invited for a lovely yacht cruise from a Mobile Bay marina to a destination like Belize or Barbados. It’s something you’ve talked about for years. You and your friends agree that everyone will love it.

Then you show up at the marina and there’s just one slight problem: all the materials for a yacht are waiting at the dock, but no one has built the boat. There’s enough wood and fiberglass and it floats. So you set sail, or perhaps hand-paddle along, sharks permitting, and build your yacht as you cross the Gulf of Mexico’s open waters.

That gives you some idea of how collegiate athletic programs are dealing with the new name, image and likeness rules. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Alston vs. NCAA ruling earlier this summer and the subsequent abdication by the NCAA from any leadership role, colleges and conferences are trying to handle individual cases as they come with no instruction kit and, in many cases, a sneaking suspicion that you can’t trust anyone else to avoid looking into loopholes for strategic advantages.

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So far, to the surprise of no one, some athletes have prospered in an unregulated free market. Good for them. But in the broader picture, and contradicting the “NIL will help more teams because they will be able to attract recruits” narrative, the rich – as they do – appear to be growing decidedly richer.

Take the latest story from Utah. Built Brands, an energy bar company, has entered into an agreement to pay the equivalent of full tuition to 36 walk-on football players. That’s a generous gesture even on a one-year basis, and it is financially possible largely because BYU, a richly-endowed religious school, has remarkably low tuition, ranging from $3,000 to $6,000 a year. By comparison, Alabama tuition for 2021 ranges from a little over $10,000 for instate students to over $30,000 for out-of-state tuition. But the details, which are subject to interpretation without an interpreter like the NCAA, raise a fascinating question.

Alabama head coach works with the defensive backs during practice. The Alabama Crimson Tide opened practice for the 2021 season as they prepare to defend the 2020 National Championship Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Currently, Alabama, like all FBS schools, has an 85-scholarship limit. Now imagine Nick Saban with an additional 10 full-ride scholarships. The NCAA rules on when a “walk-on” becomes a “counter” are complicated, but might be gone in a year. Now suppose that some deep-pocketed donor (and Alabama has a few) steps up for tuition-plus, essentially creating a full ride. That’s 10 more prospects per year, and while people could say, “oh, they are just walk-ons,” imagine using those 10 full rides on the top 10 prospects in Alabama (lower tuition) and having all 25 of your “other” scholarships to recruit out of state. 

Not everyone would benefit in the same way, but rest  assured that Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Texas and Oklahoma, plus a few more, would. Nate Oats would probably like to have 15 scholarships to work with instead of 13, too. And those full-ride sports are nothing compared to what would happen in baseball (especially) and other limited-scholarship sports. At least all the complaints about Vanderbilt using its institutional scholarship programs to supplement baseball would end, and the lottery argument would become moot. Just think how quickly Mississippi State and Ole Miss, or Alabama, could find funding for “walk-ons” who would potentially receive more aid than actual signees can.

Alabama pitcher Dylan Smith (25) makes a pitch against Ole Miss. The Crimson Tide hosted Ole Miss in a double header Friday, March 26, 2021, in Sewell-Thomas Stadium. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

At some point, conferences may come to some agreement on NIL tuition, although with the floodgates open it’s going to be hard to start setting limits that say players can’t get whatever benefit they want. In the meantime, it would be hard on one school in the SEC to draw the line on such an issue when another’s interpretation is different. For the moment, everyone is sailing in uncharted waters and trying to build a boat as fast as they can before they are swimming with sharks.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt 

Cecil Hurt