College football in the Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) era is headed towards a “caste system” where success is based on how much college programs pay players, according to former University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban.

Saban said at an NIL roundtable in Washington, D.C. hosted by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on Tuesday that a combination of pay-for-play through NIL collectives and free agency transfer rules was going against the spirit of college athletics.

 “What we’ve done between freedom to transfer and creating a free agency system where guys can transfer whenever they want to transfer and the whole idea that we’ve created a pay-for-play sort of model in college athletics have created some issues in actually have a program and a system that would enhance those very values that I just talked about,” Saban said. “How does this even impact other sports relative to Title IX, relative to non-revenue sports? How do we continue to create some kind of a model moving forward where we do improve the quality of life of the student-athlete but create some kind of a balance in terms of competitive balance which all venues have some guidelines and rules that create some kind of competitive balance which right now we don’t have in college athletics. It’s whoever wants to pay the most money, raise the most money, buy the most players is going to have the best opportunity to win. I don’t think that’s the spirit of college athletics. I don’t think it’s ever been the spirit of what we want college athletics to be. That’s my major concern: the combination of pay-for-play, free agency, and how that impacts development.” 

Saban continued, “All the things that I believed in for all these years, 50 years of coaching, no longer exist in college athletics. It was always about developing players. It was always about helping people be more successful in life.” 

“My wife even said to me, we’d have all the recruits over on Sunday with their parents for breakfast. She would always meet with the mothers and talk about how she was going to help impact their sons and how they would be well-taken care of. She came to me like right before I retired and said, 'Why are we doing this?' I said, 'What do you mean?' She said, 'All they care about is how much you’re going to pay them. They don’t care about how you’re going to develop them which is what we’ve always done so why are we doing this?' To me, that was sort of a red alert that we really are creating a circumstance here that is not beneficial to the development of young people which is why I always did what I did. My dad did it. I did it. That’s the reason that I always like college athletics more than the NFL is because you had the opportunity to develop young people,” Saban said. “I want their quality of life to be good. As I said before, Name, Image, and Likeness is a great opportunity for them to create a brand for themselves. I’m not against that at all, but to come up with some kind of a system that still can help with the development of young people is paramount to the future of college athletics.”

Saban retired shortly after the 2023 season.

Saban said he favored some type of revenue sharing alternate to the status quo where athletes are also allowed to profit off their NIL through advertisements and brand deals.

“Bryce Young had a Nissan deal that was a national deal, he had a Dr. Pepper deal that was a national deal, (and) he had a BMW deal that was a national deal. He earned those. That’s what Name, Image, and Likeness was supposed to be. It wasn’t supposed to be an opportunity for us to create something that would pay players,” Saban said. “Because this genie is out of the bottle, we should do something to revenue share and still have those Name, Image, and Likeness opportunities for players who earn that and have that kind of brand.”

Saban also said he didn’t think donors would continue to give money to NIL collectives to pay college athletes. Most major colleges have a collective associated with the program that’s in theory independent of the school’s athletic department. Collective staff solicit funds from large and small donors through merchandise, events and other opportunities. 

“I do think what we’re all searching for is something that is equal in all states. I do think we need some national legislation and it shouldn’t be done state-by-state. At the same time, if we revenue shared a certain amount, it would be the same in West Virginia as it would be in Texas or California or Alabama or wherever it would be. I think that’s the issue right now. We don’t have that. We have collectives that in some places are raising huge amounts of money and going to compete against people who do not have the same resources to raise those kinds of funds to pay players. You have a pay-for-play system and a free agency system that has no guidelines so there’s no competitive balance,” Saban said.

“You’re going to create a caste system where the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer and eventually the fans will look at it like, 'I really don’t want to watch this game.' I don’t think this funding collectives is sustainable because eventually people are going to say, 'I don’t want to continue to do this because we’re paying a player and the player is not there. He transferred so we don’t even get the benefit of watching the player that we were supposed to get to watch,'" he continued. "There’s a lot of internal issues right now that I certainly appreciate the fact that there’s enough interest here to look into this and try to create some guidelines that will help us be effective in terms of the future of college athletics and the development of college athletes.”

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