Round Two: More on college sports confusion

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

Last week in Round Two, I discussed how almost nothing about college sports makes sense anymore, including simple math (the Big Ten Conference has 18 teams) and geography (two California schools, Stanford and Cal, are now in the Atlantic Coast Conference).

And if you think the madness stops there, it doesn’t. Name Image Likeness and the transfer portal recently had what few constraints existed completely removed. Athletes are now considered to be university employees, which means NIL, which previously had been the domain of collectives that raised money to pay a school’s athletes, is essentially funded by the schools themselves — meaning amateur college athletes are now, by definition, professionals.

Schools can raise as much money as they want, however they want, to pay these players. There is no cap on the amount of NIL money a school can raise, and there is no cap on the amount of NIL money a player can make. Which means the gap between the Power 4 conferences and the rest of the Football Bowl Subdivision has ballooned to about the size of the Milky Way galaxy.

Which brings us to the second of this collegiate 1-2 punch. In the first incarnation of the transfer portal, the NCAA allowed players to transfer once without having to sit out a year of competition. If they transferred a second time, however, then they had to sit a year.

Not anymore. Players can now transfer as many times as they want without sitting out.

So we have a system where colleges can directly pay players for the first time in the history of intercollegiate sports and which allows for an unlimited number of transfers for every athlete. It’s free agency gone wild. Even professional leagues have salary caps (except Major League Baseball) and player contracts that give their product structure and stability. But college sports have turned into a free-for-all.

It sounds like a disaster, but is it? Let’s take a look:

Point: With the new NIL rules allowing schools to pay their players, the Ohio States, Georgias and Alabamas of the world, with their bottomless money pits, are going to be living large while the Kent States and Akrons of the world will be left shivering in the cold.
Counterpoint: That’s true. But every time a Golden Flash or Zip trades up, so to speak, it soaks up another roster spot at a bigger program. Which means there should be a spillover effect where players at bigger schools transfer to mid-majors for an opportunity to see the field immediately. Free agency works both ways.

Point: College players getting hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars to play a sport obliterates the amateur model of intercollegiate athletics.
Counterpoint: Maybe it was time to obliterate it. Aside from the moral point of getting paid for a day’s work, this new day of unfettered transfer access and big NIL money might just save college sports from complete collapse. Players who still have college eligibility remaining have been bolting early for the pros, particularly in football and basketball, in larger numbers all the time, leaving college coaches scrambling to replace this massive loss of talent every year. With unlimited transfers, however, these losses will be far easier to absorb and, as a result, maintain a program. Your quarterback left early for the NFL? No problem, the portal is full of QBs. Your point guard took off early for the NBA? Don’t sweat it, there are even better point guards waiting in the portal. What’s more, we’re finding out in these early days of NIL that players can sometimes make as much or even more playing college ball than they could by turning pro, which helps to stabilize college programs because these players often opt to return to school for another year (or two) to chase championships, awards and, hopefully, degrees. And as the NIL money only grows from here, so should the number of players sticking around for their senior years.

Point: With unlimited transfers, it’s going to be next to impossible for coaches to build and maintain a program. Rosters will need to be overhauled just about every year, leaving programs in a constant state of flux.
Counterpoint: The good news is, everyone is in the same boat. No program is going to be immune to this revolving door of athletes. Some will come, some will go, and some will stay. Coaches already recruit from the portal the same way they recruit from the high school ranks: By need, and by fit. That won’t change. What will change is they’re going to have to do it a lot more often. But there are advantages to portal recruiting: Unlike players coming out of high school, portal players, by nature of being older, are more mature (theoretically), more physically advanced and better adjusted to the college game. They’re plug-and-play athletes, whereas most high school recruits need time to adjust and develop.

Point: College athletes were already getting paid before NIL came around. They got stipend money for food, etc., plus free books, room and board, and everything else scholarship money covers. And this money came directly from the school. Those are all huge advantages that the average student doesn’t get.
Counterpoint: While all that certainly is helpful, it doesn’t pay the bills. NIL money is a life-changer for the families of many athletes, particularly those from socioeconomic backgrounds where money and opportunities are hard to come by. A player’s NIL money could skyrocket a family’s quality of life in a very short period of time rather than having to wait years for it to happen — if it happens.

– Point: Circling back to the Ohio States, Georgias and Alabamas of the world, programs such as those are going to become Death Stars given a chance to pick and choose the best players in the portal every year. How can anyone compete with schools like that?
Counterpoint: They’re already Death Stars, and most schools already can’t compete with them. So really, not much should change. The mid-majors are going to fall further behind, but then, with players from big schools being widely available in the portal, maybe they won’t fall as far behind as we think.

Point: With colleges directly paying players now, the NCAA needs to do the right thing and let programs who were punished for players receiving “impermissible benefits,” like Ohio State with Tattoogate in 2011, out of purgatory and reinstate their victories and championships. Many programs over the decades have had their achievements vacated by the NCAA for what are now chump-change violations. They wouldn’t be violations now, so programs shouldn’t be continued to be punished for them. They served their time.
Counterpoint: There’s no countering this logic, and the Heisman Trust agrees. Back in April, the organization — which is not affiliated with the NCAA — gave former USC running back Reggie Bush his 2005 Heisman Trophy back, after the Heisman Trust had vacated his award in 2010 when the NCAA hit USC with major sanctions that included Bush receiving improper benefits during his Trojan career. And what prompted this change of heart by the Heisman Trust? “Enormous changes in the college football landscape” was the organization’s reasoning. In other words, what was an NCAA crime in 2005 isn’t an NCAA crime in 2024, and the rules and results should reflect that. So there’s a good possibility that the new NIL paradigm will result in athletes and programs rightfully getting their victories and championships reinstated by the NCAA. The only question is if the NCAA will make that decision on its own, or if it will have to be dragged into court and compelled to do so.

So where does this leave us? Are unlimited NIL money and endless transfer opportunities good for college sports, or a fast track to their ultimate destruction?

We’ll have to wait and see. While it’s certainly the end of college sports as we know it, we might end up liking the new version even better.

Or not.

+ posts

Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.