When I moved to the South at a young age, I didn’t understand why my friends didn’t like the NFL like I did. I wasn’t just upset that everyone hated my New England Patriots, even many years before the Atlanta Falcons’ historic Super Bowl meltdown against them in 2017. My classmates didn’t like any NFL teams; college football, I would learn, is sacrosanct.
Not much has changed since my move to Georgia 18 years ago. The Bulldogs and the SEC enjoy hegemony here and their fandom dominates that of the pros, yet the players still aren’t getting paid. Name, image and likeness laws have been a key first step in compensation, but college athletes remain exploited for their labor.
The NCAA, kicking and screaming at every turn, was unsurprisingly dragged into this decision by state government and Supreme Court intervention. NIL deals are essentially the penultimate nail in the coffin of “amateurism,” that fancy term that simply means, “professionalism where everyone gets a payout except those playing the sports.” The University of Georgia’s football program generated $179 million in revenue last year.
While many a hair is on fire at the thought of, as ESPN analyst Jay Bilas put it, letting players “participate in commerce just like everyone else,” NIL opportunities will allow college athletic stars to create wealth from their image.
There was no reason to prohibit this before anyway, so it’s nice to see Georgia quarterback JT Daniels making the most of this change. The early Heisman contender has signed multiple deals with intentions to spread the wealth among his teammates. Daniels’ management confirmed that half of the profit from a trading card deal will be given to other members of the team.
The final nail, however, is compensation for the labor of the sport itself. Let’s stick to football — Daniels’ linemen should not have to rely on a subsidy from their QB to pay rent or get health care. In the SEC, the potential rewards are high; these young men will have no such worries if they make the NFL and represent Georgia well as professional ball players.
But the risk is equally high. It goes without saying that they will not all make it. Stiff competition makes sure of that, but so does injury, as former Alabama wide receiver Tyrone Prothro personifies.
“It never came across my head that I wasn’t gonna be able to play again,” said Prothro of his gruesome 2005 leg snap. His quite realistic hopes for NFL stardom were crushed in an instant. He’s had 11 surgeries on the injury since then, and now sells cars in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Prothro may very well be happy with his fate, but his worth was certainly undercut by Alabama and the NCAA. Save for some nostalgic game tape, there’s nothing to show for years of dedication to intense, literal bone-breaking work.
No amount of brand-building or endorsement changes the fact that these players are workers first, and the fruits of their labor make a plentiful bounty.
College football is a spectacle for a reason. The advertisements, the TV coverage, the behemoth stadiums with rabid fans, mascots and bands — it all adds up to billions of revenue. Sure, now the players can make YouTube videos and sign chicken sandwich deals … whenever they have a minute not working full-time for no pay. NIL is not enough.