When the NCAA was founded in 1906 (as the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States) there were no discussions about paying players, transfers, or redshirt years. At the time, schools could offer scholarships to as many players as they could afford. It wouldn’t be until 1973 that they actually set a limit on roster size for football teams. The restrictive 105 scholarship limit was a reaction to Title IX passed by Congress the previous year in an effort to free up some of the scholarship money for female athletes. The numbers would be adjusted again in 1978 down to 95 and finally in 1992 to the current 85 scholarship limit.
Between the current NIL landscape and the explorations on the part of the NCAA of letting schools pay students directly, we are about to enter a new era of college athletics. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to free agency.
It might be a silly thing to consider, but I am gonna get loud about it.
Everything Old is New Again
Prior to 1973, schools could have as many players on the football team as they could afford. Alabama routinely had 150 players on the roster. Notre Dame was basically printing its own money when it came to the football team. If you go back and look, most schools' rosters from the first half of the 20th century only list players who “lettered” and routinely have 80 or more names, but the photos show over 100 smiling faces.
Since winning games was about buying bodies, smaller schools never had a chance. So I will no longer recognize any national title banner hung before scholarship limits. Update the counts and a lot of the “blue bloods” lose the title. There are now only 44 National Champions in the history of College Football. If I wanted to get really onery about it, I would throw out everything prior to the BCS too. Before the computers got involved it was decided by national polls. Since no one on the East coast is staying up to watch any football played west of the Rockies in 2023, we can be pretty sure voters had no idea most of the Western schools not named USC even existed in the 80s and 90s.
Clearly we never learned from our history, so now we are doomed to repeat it. We are going back to paying for players, and it means we have to reset the count again. National titles will be about who could buy the best roster. Just like the pros. But a year of a college athlete’s eligibility is currently a much smaller investment than a multi-year, partially guaranteed, incentivized pro contract. With the exception of some wildly over-bid pay-outs. (Glances sideways at USC, TAMU and Texas.)
Write Those Checks
Sports writers like to speculate wildly about how much players are making in NIL deals. Jordan Addison got $3+ million to transfer to USC. Nix supposedly got $2 million at Oregon. A high profile QB commit was offered $6 million at an SEC school but apparently threw a fit when it didn’t just take the form of a giant check like they hand out at golf tournaments. Since most of those deals are private contracts, we may never really know what kids are making. Details shared on social media are usually wildly inflated either by writers looking for clicks, or the athletes themselves trying to leverage their “brand”.
Early in the process, someone on TV suggested that NIL would create an open market for athletes, and that eventually that market would stabilize. I think that is exactly what is happening. As the big schools with deep-pocketed donors pulled together collectives to broker these deals, they soon realized that they should probably be smart with their money. Since it’s the wild west of transfers, its not the best idea to drop six or seven figures on a kid who may not be there after getting asked to redshirt.
This means that somewhere there is a price list getting passed around. Not in any official capacity, and there will certainly be exceptions. But the people writing the checks are going to get to a point where they know how much a certain quality player costs, both as a recruit and as a transfer. Need a new left tackle? Million bucks. Edge rusher? $750k. Starting wideout? Two million. Heisman caliber QB with starting experience? Back up the Brinks truck.
Now that we have established the market, it's time to break the system.
85 Scholarships, Infinite Possibilities
The average cost of a year of college in this country is $36,436. Add in housing, food, and a few other perks you hit $50k pretty quickly. Now give that player a NIL deal worth figures. Does he really need the scholarship anymore? It may have happened already and no one noticed. A walk-on managing to earn a starting spot and cashing in.
Soon, and likely this year, a player will transfer to a school that doesn’t have a scholarship available, and play as a walk on. NIL deals will cover his expenses like tuition and housing with piles of cash to spare. You now have free-agent college athletes. Write the check, get the player. No need to worry about class sizes or roster limits. If you can ball out and have eligibility left, we have a spot for you.
Some schools got the jump on NIL recruiting. Some schools were buying recruits before it was acceptable and just got to be more open about it. The next logical step is paying players in lieu of scholarships. Put your bets in now on who tries it first. My money is on Miami or Texas A&M. Maybe an “academically prowessed” school manages to find a foothold in the free market. Either way some of these rosters are about to get pretty swollen.
Sign me up for the first jersey with a 3-digit number.