NIL, the transfer portal and so much more: 2021 was a year of constant upheaval for college football

NCAAF

The good news for college football is that the 2021 season looked, more or less, like most seasons that came before, filled with big games, high drama and a satisfying conclusion, as Georgia won its first national championship in 41 years.

Off the field, however, 2021 was a year of constant upheaval, with college football enduring a flurry of transformational events — from the Supreme Court to the transfer portal — that has left the sport in a precarious position as the 2022 offseason begins.

ESPN talked with more than a dozen league commissioners, school administrators and longtime coaches to get some insight on where things stand as college football looks to establish a new normal in the aftermath of the Alston ruling, realignment, NIL and a new NCAA governance structure.

The Alston ruling

How it started: In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the NCAA, saying that limits on educational benefits was in violation of antitrust law. In a particularly withering opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote that, “The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.”

How it’s going: Pick any major issue in college football and odds are the Alston decision is looming in the background. From playoff expansion to regulating the name, image and likeness marketplace to putting some limits on transfers, the NCAA is hamstrung by antitrust concerns and the end result has been an effective end to all but the most basic oversight of the sport.

“[The court] decided we were in violation of antitrust, and we’re not going to give you the latitude we gave you before,” North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham said. “So we’re trying to get out of the antitrust issues but retain requirements of Title IX. The free market doesn’t have Title IX as an issue. And how do you handle these programs that generate money and balance that with programs that don’t? It’s a challenge.”

So what’s the answer?

The prevailing hope is the federal government will step in and offer some guidance, particularly on NIL. But several commissioners expressed doubt that that would happen soon.

The alternative, Cunningham wondered, is to find a path to collective bargaining. It’s an idea that would’ve been unimaginable in NCAA circles just a few years ago, but that’s how quickly the landscape has changed, and several coaches who spoke to ESPN wondered if a players union was the inevitable path forward.

“That’s one of the outcomes that could happen is some type of agreement between those who participate on the field or the court and those who have control of the contracts and the money,” Cunningham said. “The other option is federal legislation. I don’t know which one of those is going to happen, but it certainly seems as though some type of a different economic model is going to emerge in the next couple years.”

Immediate eligibility for transfers

How it started: In April, the NCAA made official new legislation that would allow all athletes to transfer one time without sitting out a season.

How it’s going: The 2021 season included a number of enormous success stories to come from the transfer portal, including Alabama‘s Jameson Williams, Michigan State‘s Kenneth Walker III and Western Kentucky‘s Bailey Zappe, but there are currently more than 3,000 players in the portal, with the majority unlikely to find a new home.

What’s more, the portal has created a litany of other problems. Coaches complain about rampant tampering, with programs using back channels to reach out to players who have not yet entered the portal. Dozens of players left their teams midseason in hopes of getting an early start on finding a new home, with midyear enrollees more likely to earn playing time in 2022. Then there’s roster management, which has been thrown into flux as schools are losing players to the portal and unable to replace them by signing high school athletes.

“All the coaches want a way to build and manage the roster after signing day,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said after FBS coaches met at the annual AFCA convention in January. “We need something that allows us more flexibility after signing days when we lose players.”

Programs are currently capped at signing 25 new players per year, but Doeren said there have been discussions to allow for one additional signing for each scholarship transfer a school endures. The other alternative, he said, would be to allow schools to sign as many players as they’d like, so long as they don’t exceed 85 scholarships total.

Another coach suggested adding NFL-style organized team activities (OTAs) in May or June — essentially a second spring practice — would reduce the incentive to get transfers into a program in January.

Nearly every administrator ESPN spoke with said there was a need to establish “transfer windows” to limit the timing of departures, which could then be better folded into the recruiting calendar, but with so much concern over antitrust litigation, the NCAA has been reluctant to create any perceived restrictions on player movement.

“I’m very much in favor of the transfer portal, but I want it to have windows,” Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said. “I’d be in favor of putting a limitation that, until you’ve finished your first academic year, you can’t transfer. After your first year, you should be able to transfer, and the portal should have windows, and there should be no transfers immediately before, during and after the season.”

Doeren said he would go one step further, extending those transfer windows to coaches and staff, too.

“Once we start camp, everyone in the building can’t do anything other than compete until the season ends,” Doeren said. “Then the portal opens and coaching decisions are made. But let’s all focus on having a good season.”

Name, image and likeness

How it started: On July 1, new legislation allowing college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness took effect. While the initial laws were passed in just a handful of states, others quickly followed suit, and rather than designing uniform national regulations for NIL, the NCAA opted to take a hands-off approach with limited oversight.

How it’s going: Several stars, including Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, who coach Nick Saban said earned nearly $1 million in NIL revenue in 2021, have turned NIL into a boon for their bank accounts. But beyond the biggest names in the sport, the initial intention of NIL — to connect athletes with marketing opportunities — has morphed into something that occasionally looks much closer to pay-for-play. In August, Built Brands offered money to cover scholarship costs for every BYU walk-on, and a local MMA gym offered up to $6,000 per year to every Miami football player. That was just the tip of the iceberg, and booster collectives have emerged at numerous programs, where supporters pool resources to get money to athletes through the auspices of NIL.

“Pretty quickly, you could see [schools] had to have some deals and deal flows when you talk about recruiting,” said Jim Cavale, founder and CEO of INFLCR/Teamworks, a company that works with schools to educate athletes on NIL opportunities. “But if you’re doing that without any fulfillment, it starts to make you wonder, is this NIL or pay for play? There are a lot of collectives just focused on getting money together that are just focused on NIL to recruit players.”

That’s a massive problem, Cunningham said, as schools utilize NIL as a means of talent acquisition.

“We all thought, here’s how the professionals do it, but they have a draft,” Cunningham said. “And when, fundamentally, the difference between teams is how you attract students to come to your campus, this becomes a significant change in how we try to get students to select a certain school.”

The NCAA had nearly two years to create guardrails to prevent de facto pay-for-play, but instead, it defaulted to individual states to develop their own rules. That piecemeal approach resulted in schools in different states operating under completely different rules, and as some states consider repealing their NIL legislation now, the eventual endpoint might be a landscape with essentially no rules at all.

“I don’t look at what we’re doing as being outside the bounds of what a lot of our peers are doing,” Miami AD Dan Radakovich said of several high-profile deals for Hurricanes players. “There’s that razor’s edge of pay-for-play versus a student-athlete utilizing their name, image and likeness to move forward a business. Nationally, that ditch has been jumped. We’re in that circumstance when some states don’t have any rules or restrictions. It’s critical we get some federal guidelines to make sure everybody is playing by the same set of rules.”

Playoff expansion

How it started: In July, a proposed 12-team playoff, featuring the top six conference champions and six wild cards, was floated and expected to receive all but rubber-stamp approval. After news leaked of plans for Texas and Oklahoma to join the SEC, however, expansion talks hit a roadblock.

How it’s going: After months of debate, playoff expansion remains in limbo, in large part due to the ACC’s firm stance against approving any changes until the other leagues agree to what commissioner Jim Phillips calls “a 365-day holistic review” of the sport.

“We don’t have a College Football Playoff problem,” Phillips said. “We have a college football and college athletics/NCAA problem.”

The gist of Phillips’ pitch is this: If college football wants to reap the financial rewards of playoff expansion, the sport needs to eat its vegetables first — addressing the recruiting calendar, NIL regulations, the transfer portal and player health and safety concerns, among other issues.

Radakovich said Phillips has “unanimous support” among the ACC schools, and while other leagues haven’t been so steadfast in their position against a vote, the ACC isn’t exactly standing alone.

Kliavkoff said he agreed with Phillips’ efforts to address player health, safety and academic concerns, and backed conversations about tweaking the calendar and rule book.

“But we believe that it is best to select an expansion format for the CFP and start socializing that format, while we work on the calendar and rulebook in parallel,” Kliavkoff said.

Phillips said the ACC had initially favored an eight-team playoff model, but has backed off that proposal, as the latest discussions did not include automatic bids for conference champions. A 12-team model remains the favorite among other leagues, with the Big Ten, in particular, favoring auto bids, while several administrators have questioned the toll additional games might take on the players.

From a legal standpoint, Phillips said he’s worried expansion — and the financial windfall it’s likely to bring — would create a feeding frenzy among antitrust lawyers, eager to litigate the NCAA’s stance against paying players, while enjoying even more revenue on those players’ backs. But the worries aren’t just self-interest either, as Phillips and others have held regular discussions on ways to cut down on the wear and tear athletes face in-season to help counter the impact of additional postseason games — from scaling back to 11 regular-season games to adding an additional off week during the season to rules changes, like a running clock after incomplete passes to cut down on snaps over the course of the year.

“I think we need to look at [the rulebook] and look at the length of the season,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said, “but I don’t think all of those things are going to be solved before we have to come back to the drawing board anyway [when the CFP contract ends in 2026].”

Aresco said expansion is inevitable eventually, and finding a suitable plan before the expiration of the current deal makes sense for both the sport and the athletes.

“The playoff is about giving more student athletes a chance to compete, and we wouldn’t necessarily add numerous games to the equation,” Aresco said. “It was overwhelming in our conference and most of the other conferences — not the ACC, obviously — that the kids wanted that opportunity.”

Realignment

How it started: In July, news broke that Texas and Oklahoma would join the SEC. This left conferences scrambling, with the Big 12 adding teams from the American Athletic Conference and the Sun Belt and AAC poaching many programs from Conference USA.

How it’s going: If the 2021 season proved anything, it was that Texas and Oklahoma’s defection for the SEC wouldn’t necessarily be the seismic shift in the sport most observers predicted.

On the field, Oklahoma muddled through an up-and-down season, while Texas imploded down the stretch and failed to make a bowl game. Meanwhile, three of the teams the Big 12 added to replace the departing Sooners and Longhorns finished in the AP Top 25, including Cincinnati, which earned a playoff bid.

“It’s the best possible scenario for us,” Cincinnati athletic director John Cunningham said. “In August and September, to have the Big 12 [agreement] pop up, and then to make the playoff, it’s been some really exciting times for our fan base to really rally behind this team.”

The bigger picture, however, remains a bit murky.

The SEC is still in a power position, though the early leak of realignment news likely scuttled commissioner Greg Sankey’s hopes for playoff expansion. Regardless, the added revenue flowing to a 16-team SEC could dramatically alter the power structure in college football, furthering the divide between the so-called haves and have-nots.

The American conference, which billed itself as the sixth member of the Power 5, took pride in Cincinnati’s playoff run, but what once seemed like a league on the doorstep of the top tier with fellow success stories in UCF and Houston, is back to rebuilding with those three programs leaving. Now the league’s fate lies with Charlotte, UTSA, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, UAB and Rice.

“We think they all have great potential,” AAC commissioner Aresco said. “We think we’re going to be strong, and we’re obviously going to rebuild and try to be what we were — a contender to be a Power 6 conference. And who knows what’s going to happen to the Power 5? It was a tough process, and I can say categorically I don’t like realignment, but our conference came out of this very well.”

Of course, Aresco wasn’t willing to say if the realignment shake-ups had drawn to a close, with TV contracts expiring for the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 in the coming years.

It’s a sentiment Phillips echoed, too, as he made his case against a rush toward playoff expansion. By the time the current playoff contract expires in 2026, Phillips said it’s entirely possible more big-time teams could find homes in a new conference.

“What we’ve seen historically is that it’s fluid,” Phillips said. “When you look at still having four years left of the current CFP cycle, why wouldn’t we think additional expansion happens across the country? Maybe it doesn’t, but maybe it does based on history. That’s the nature of college athletics.”

The Alliance

How it started: In the aftermath of Texas and Oklahoma announcing plans to join the SEC, leaders in the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 — three conferences that were “philosophically aligned,” according to the commissioners — joined forces in a bid to work in unison on major issues within the sport, as well as potential scheduling partnerships.

How it’s going: The alliance began with real enthusiasm, with fans assuming the agreement might lead to big nonconference matchups and that the three leagues would vote as a bloc to help balance the SEC’s outsized influence. Thus far, however, the impact of the alliance has largely been behind the scenes.

“We’ve settled on some really important areas of student-athlete support and development, social responsibility, governance and compliance,” Phillips said. “I know people, their eyes set on, what does it look like from a scheduling piece? The tough thing is our schedules are so far down the road.”

The alliance has found some success in cross-conference scheduling in Olympic sports and basketball, and it announced plans for the “Teammates for Mental Health” initiative aimed at raising awareness about mental health matters for athletes.

The alliance, too, has largely staved off massive ripple effects from the SEC’s expansion. What once seemed like an inevitable flood of realignment instead became a trickle — at least for now. Meanwhile, despite disparate opinions on playoff expansion, the three leagues have largely set a united front against quick approval of a new structure.

Leadership in the three leagues speak regularly, too, and Kliavkoff said he’s optimistic the scheduling component will be addressed soon. Discussions for a mid-season college basketball tournament are in the works, and, as reported by The Athletic, the Big Ten is considering scaling back to an eight-game conference schedule, which would make cross-conference scheduling among alliance members more feasible in the near term.

“People will be pleasantly surprised at the announcements of these new events and scheduling agreements when we announce them,” Kliavkoff said. “We’re just not ready to announce them yet.”

The NCAA constitutional convention

How it started: In the wake of the Alston ruling and the advent of NIL, the NCAA opted to convene a group of stakeholders to reimagine the organization’s constitution.

How it’s going: The group met throughout the fall, and in January 2022, the new constitution, which continued to prohibit direct pay-for-play, but offered wide latitude to individual conferences on other rules, was approved. The question now is, was this a last step toward a new era of oversight or the first step toward a division of power that sees top programs separate from the rest of college sports?

“That’s the crux of the conversation that has to happen over the next eight months,” Radakovich said. “I think the Power 5 is desirous of additional autonomy, not just on the small parts of the rulebook that they have now, but to expand beyond that. And maybe that’s the first baby steps as it relates to independence for the Power 5. There’s going to be an awful lot to debate.”

The biggest issue, Kliavkoff said, is whether schools operating in vastly different marketplaces can coexist under the same sets of rules. As college football deals with so many major issues, finding common ground is often about finding areas in which programs’ business strategies overlap. But how similar are those strategies between the FBS and FCS, or the SEC and the Sun Belt?

“Conferences want more self-governance, Kliavkoff said. “Choosing the group of conferences that collectively self-govern is a balance. You want the group to be small enough, so the members have [a] similar business model and therefore aligned interests, but big enough to be inclusive.”

Who’ll be a part of that possible collective, Kliavkoff said, will largely be determined by revenue splits and playoff access.

How much longer will the NCAA last as an institution? Is amateurism doomed as a model at the highest levels of college football? Are any of the power players in the sport capable of charting a path forward?

Phillips described the past year as a moment of destabilization. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, he said, but several big issues have enveloped the sport. Though they’ve happened in isolation, the ripple effects have reached far-off shores. It’s hard to imagine the summer of 2022 will include quite so many seismic shifts as last summer did, but college football is still grappling with how to define its future.

“We need a holistic review, and that has to be done across the country,” Phillips said. “That’s all of us coming together and deal with these changes to determine the best way we can more effectively support and enhance college football.”

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