Nick Saban wants players to be able to get paid, but 'I don’t want them to be employees'

WASHINGTON — On Capitol Hill, within a U.S. Senate building and in front of several sitting senators and political figures, college football’s most legendary living coach stumped for college athletes to be paid, just not as employees; attributed his retirement to the current unregulated nature of the college athletics pay system; and criticized booster-led collectives that, he says, have transformed the sport into a “pay for play” industry.

In a teal suit and dotted blue tie, former Alabama coach Nick Saban spoke as one of nine members as part of a roundtable discussion organized and led by Sen. Ted Cruz, the lawmaker’s attempt to highlight the need for congressional action related to college athlete legislation.

Two months removed from announcing his retirement, Saban offered a thundering message to the college sports world: Pay the players — but with limitations.

“I’m for student-athletes being able to share in some of this revenue,” he said. “The No. 1 solution is if we could have some kind of a revenue-sharing proposition that did not make student-athletes employees. That may be the long-term solution.

“I don’t want them to be employees, but I want them to share in the revenue some kind of way.”

Much of the 100-minute discussion was focused on Saban’s thoughts, insights and opinions, including a story he shared about how the current state of the sport contributed to his leaving the game after 50 years as a coach.

At some point before his retirement decision, his wife Terry approached him with a question: Why are we doing this?

“She said, 'All [the players] 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?'” Saban said. “That was kind of a red alert that we really are creating a circumstance that is not beneficial to the development of young people, which is why I always did what I did.”

Former Alabama coach Nick Saban and Sen. Ted Cruz speak during a roundtable on the future of college athletics. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Former Alabama coach Nick Saban and Sen. Ted Cruz speak during a roundtable on the future of college athletics. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

At the center of the discussion was the latest in a long-running lobbying effort from college athletic stakeholders who, since at least 2019, have sought a congressional bill to, at first, provide a national solution for differing state name, image and likeness (NIL) laws. Over the last couple of years, as the courts creep closer to deeming college athletes as employees, their lobbying effort has shifted toward employment and antitrust protections.

Saban, his former athletic director, Greg Byrne, and ACC commissioner Jim Phillips encouraged lawmakers in attendance to pass legislation that creates a more regulated framework around athlete compensation as opposed to the unwieldy nature of the current situation, where booster-led collectives are paying players salaries masqueraded as NIL deals. Byrne believes Congress should grant college sports a “safe haven” from athlete employment and Title IX restraints as well as protection from antitrust legal challenges.

And they all seem to agree on another thing: Revenue sharing should come to college athletics. But how to do it — without making athletes employees — remains murky.

An employment model in college sports will likely result in the elimination of sports teams, both Byrne and Phillips told lawmakers. Most athletic departments, even at the highest levels, turn a profit on only two sports: football and men’s basketball. Schools use those funds to subsidize the rest of the athletic teams, most of which lose $1 million to $5 million each annually.

For instance, said Byrne, Alabama uses the revenues from football and basketball to overcome a $40 million deficit from non-revenue sports. What happens to an athletic department if that football and basketball cash were used, not to fund operations of Olympic sports, but to distribute to athletes in an employment model?

The simple answer, administrators say, is the elimination of sports.

“There’s not an unlimited amount of money as some believe," Byrne said.

If athletes are deemed employees, Phillips believes universities can pay athletes in sports that make revenue (football and basketball) and then, to satisfy Title IX, would pay an “equivalent number of female athletes.” The rest may be cut.

“You can go from 28 to six sports in one fiscal year,” Phillips said.

The probability of college athletes becoming employees has gripped much of college athletics in fear. Some lawmakers plan to address the concept in a congressional bill. But a compromise from Republicans and Democrats on a bill’s language does not currently exist.

After the roundtable, while speaking to reporters, Cruz provided an update on negotiations, describing the two sides as “close” to a deal. Cruz, who in the fall put chances for a congressional bill’s passage at 60-40, says he’d now adjust that to “50-50,” only because “we’re running out of time.”

“It’s not too late but we are getting close to it being too late to get it done,” he said. “There are elements there of bipartisian agreement. We just haven’t gotten everyone to the table to sign off.”

In an election year, Cruz believes this Congress has a window of about two more months to pass legislation. He and Sen. Jerry Moran, two Republicans, have been engrossed in negotiations with Democrat Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Cory Booker for at least three months. Cruz described the discussions as “ongoing and productive,” and pointed toward athlete employment as a “potential disagreement” between the two sides.

However, athlete employment was a bigger “sticking point” six months ago, he said. There is now more agreement that a bill should deem college athletes as students and not employees.

So what’s the holdup?

There is disagreement over what entity should have oversight of college athletics. While the Democrats have suggested an outside government-type agency, Republicans like Cruz support the NCAA remaining in charge of the daily oversight.

There is also disagreement on what degree to grant the NCAA protection from legal challenges, if at all — an antitrust exemption that for years has been a hurdle between the two parties.

The overall goal of any congressional action is to permit compensation to athletes in a fair way while also legislating competitive equity to bring a version of parity to the game, Cruz said.

“It’s not fun to watch a football game if you’ve got the equivalent of an NFL team on one side and a junior high flag football team on the other,” he said. “That doesn’t make for a very good game. Parity and competitiveness is in jeopardy right now.”

Despite his program being dominant in recruiting as well as on the field for more than a decade, Saban cited a lack of parity now in the college game. Schools residing in states with more profitable economies and population centers are paying their athletes more and, thus, destroying any equality in the game.

“If we revenue shared a certain amount, it’d be the same [in each state]. That’s the issue right now. We don’t have that,” he said. “We have collectives in some states raising huge amounts of money and competing against those who don’t have those kinds of funds to pay players. … You’re going to create a caste system where the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.”

Meanwhile, outside of congressional intervention — which, for some, remains a long shot — college leaders are gearing up in an attempt to create a new athlete compensation model themselves. The SEC and Big Ten, for instance, have created a joint advisory board with hopes of adopting a new future model, perhaps with a revenue-sharing concept. At the NCAA level, president Charlie Baker released a framework of a model himself that would funnel a portion of school revenue directly to athletes.

In a way, they are in a race to beat the courts to the punch. There is a strong possibility that college athletes will be deemed employees by a national governing board or federal judge in the coming months.

The race is on, each entity busily working toward a way to provide compensation to athletes in various forms. Who will reach the finish line first? Congress, college leaders, the courts, or athletes themselves through a unionization effort like the one at Dartmouth?