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Charleston Business

NIL + The Price of Victory

Sep 20, 2022 04:41PM ● By Marty Flynn

It was 1983 when I got my first look at the town of Clemson. On approach, the bucolic setting signaled to me that perhaps I had not strayed as far from my native Ireland as the 3,000 miles of separation had initially suggested. And then it appeared, this domed concrete pantheon jutting skyward.

No, this was no ordinary town, but the chosen landing site of a mighty spaceship from which had disembarked a team of sporting heroes who would claim this valley to showcase a stronger, faster human, and bring fame and fortune to the surroundings. My sport was track, and my scholarship a trickle-down benefit of the spoils of the big game played in this towering arena. 

College athletics has been an evolving story of the haves and the have nots, and the most significant player in this evolution has been the spectator. Once upon a time, college football entertained fans for a few hours on a Saturday.

The cheers of heroic deeds and the sighs of changing fortunes were an extension of the play. The game was over when the whistle blew and life resumed. But some fans never left the stadium. To them win-loss had become a personal matter, and they decreed that the game must be won off the field, before it can be won on the field.

The storied programs we hail today were the first to tilt the scoreboard in their favor by embracing the willingness of fans to support their team way beyond the price of admission. Champion college football programs today have all forged a path to dominance armed with substantial financial backing from the hands in the stands. Victory feeds the beast of success, and accelerates the growth of facilities, talent, and prominence. 

In the early days of college football’s quest for greater acclaim, the prevailing philosophy was if you build it they will come. This was a good start, but more astute college leaders recognized that if you win, not only will they come, but they will build you a bigger stadium, and then ask you what else needs building.

This partnership ushered in the rise of magnificent home venues and superior training facilities. The financial formula for success was recalibrated to include lucrative compensation packages to attract the best coaches that money could find.

A natural extension of the trajectory of this financial force was player remuneration, which has now come to fruition in the form of NIL (name, image, likeness).

And now that the NIL jersey is in play, the football dynasties cry foul. But there was no way that the monetary pipeline that has been fueling the growth and success of college football was going to flow through a college town and bypass the locker room. However, the implications of NIL transactions extend well beyond pay-to-play contractual agreements. 

The loss of the locker room poses the greatest threat to success, and every great coach knows this. Teams are forged in the locker room amidst the jangling, the jostling, and the joking.

But the reality is that for many seasons now the game has been steadily evolving away from the locker room to the showroom, from the bench to the stage, from camaraderie to independent contractors. The modern locker room is now a trophy room highlighting names and rank, and individual value. Recruiting is a bidding war for the modern-day gladiator of the gridiron, and the nature of the gladiator is to fight for himself. Wins and losses are now in the hands of individual star power. 

We got to this point because tradition and nostalgia are no match for culture and capitalism. In America we talk team, but we worship the individual, the top scorer, the MVP, the game changer.

College football has become a major platform for the idolization of the individual player. In the upper echelons of Division 1 football, the pursuit of star recruits is a choreographed pageant of pomp and placation played out in a continuum of favorable impressions and closely monitored by media hype. The coveted player is a target of adulation and crowned a champion long before he ever steps on the field of play. 

So here we are on the brink of another college football season. The fans of means have already tallied their number of victories, and headline players have already tallied their earnings. And somewhere else on the other side of success, in a dingy old locker room, players don ill-fitting hand-me-down uniforms, and contemplate a season of 10-hour road trips, and meals at all-you-can-eat restaurants to stretch the lowly per diem. And sometimes sitting on that old wooden bench, they can’t help but wonder if they haven’t been time-warped into a futuristic world where the people recognize their game, but know nothing of their name. 

When we invited the star ships to stay, they warned us that the quest for victory was a race with no finish line on a track reserved for the elite.

We can build champions, but heroes are born out of a humble fabric that is not bound by success or the glaring spotlight. Down the ages from biblical times it has been the underdog, the scrappy performer, and the valiant undermanned team who bring the fight to the mighty, who have honed our love for the contest. But in this new high-stakes game we have today that favors the pre-ordained victory, there is no chance of Cinderella stories or giant-slaying feats that live on in legend. 

College football needs to rein in a destructive monster of its own creation, and in what indeed would be a heroic move, unyoke itself from this money-hungry beast who is being overfed to the point of defecating on the verdant pastures of glory.

Marty Flynn is head of the marketing department at Greenville Technical College.