Nick Saban’s comments illustrate the NCAA’s continual exploitation of Black athletes
The Alabama-Texas A&M war of words is the latest example that colleges are terrified they can’t fully control their Black labor force
Just to get this out of the way: What Alabama coach Nick Saban implied about other college football programs this month during a local Birmingham, Alabama, business leaders meeting was objectively funny.
While speaking on the topic of the impact name, image and likeness (NIL) rules have on recruiting, Saban basically said that the only way Texas A&M, which beat out Alabama for the No. 1 recruiting class during December’s early signing period, could get recruits to choose the fellow Southeastern Conference school was by literally paying the players to come.
“I mean, we were second in recruiting last year,” Saban told the audience. “A&M was first. A&M bought every player on their team – made a deal for name, image, likeness. We didn’t buy one player, all right? But I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to sustain that in the future because more and more people are doing it. It’s tough.”
Publicly claiming your competition is so trash that they have to compensate people to even consider choosing them over you is the type of pettiness one has to respect.
But after you zero in on the language Saban used when tarnishing the Aggies (“bought every player”), the fact that he roped historically Black Jackson State into his remarks, and the racial connotation of discussing the purchase of Black people in a room full of white people in, of all places, Birmingham, Saban’s comments illustrate the NCAA’s continued exploitation of Black athletes — no matter the amount of compensation now afforded to them.
The NIL and transfer portal era, wherein players can profit off their celebrity and transfer to another school without having to sit out a season, has swung the pendulum of power in college from the coaches and administrators to the players. And based on Saban’s comments — and many other college coaches, it should be noted — college programs are absolutely terrified that they can no longer fully control their Black labor force.
The institution of college football is built on the backs of Black people and the continued suppression of their wages and power. Its very foundation is that of paternal control, from the food players eat to the courses they enroll in, down to the tattoos they’re allowed to get inked on their bodies.
They prefer Black players who are so broke, dumb and dependent that they have no other choice but to conform. Don’t take my word for it, here’s what now-former Bears scout Chris Prescott said about Chicago draft pick Jaquan Brisker: “He’s a – what would we call it? – Ph.D? Poor, hungry and desperate. Football is his life.”
Since the first major television contracts were signed decades ago, the entire house of cards that is the NCAA has been propped up by the mandate that tuition and housing be considered adequate benefits for players, mostly Black, who generate billions of dollars every year for both the NCAA and its respective schools.
“Our students who play sports are not exploited. They are educated,” former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany wrote in a 2017 Chicago Tribune op-ed. College athletes are “educated,” but sometimes in the tutor-taking-player-exams or entire-academic-department-is-a-fraud sense.
But now players are able to be paid, not by their schools, but by benefactors willing to give money directly to players rather than funnel it through the athletic department or by, uh, other means.
And that has made Saban and others furious. So mad that he would accuse a conference member of purchasing players as if they were a piece of meat. It’s not hard to see the problem of saying a Black person was “bought,” particularly since Saban wouldn’t consider himself property of the University of Alabama simply because they pay him a salary. But when a system has been propped up by the exploitation of Black people for so long, it can be difficult to train your mind away from viewing the players as simple commodities.
Saban’s beef with Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher has received the most attention in the wake of Saban’s remarks, a point that will surely be magnified this week at the SEC spring meetings in Florida, but Saban’s frustration that Alabama is losing its juice in the recruiting department based solely on the fact that players can be wooed by money also stands out — the same kind of money that pays for Saban’s home, his university-owned vehicle and his membership to local country clubs.
His complaints are rooted in the same archaic notions of control that have been the talking points of the NCAA since it banned financial compensation for players in the mid-20th century.
Saban mentioned how players who once grew up wanting to play at Alabama now come with their hands out asking, “Well, what am I going to get?” This takes away the leverage of dangling a scholarship offer over the recruits’ heads and instead diverts the power of choice to the players. (Former Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle used to threaten to send underperforming Black players “back to the ghetto.”)
He even went to the tried-and-true threat of sport erasure: “If we start paying players, we’ll have to eliminate sports,” he said, which 1) Ignores that sports are being cut without schools paying athletes and 2) Acknowledges that predominantly Black sports (football, basketball) subsidize the whiter, wealthier sports (crew, golf, etc.). Players in non-revenue sports “for years have been able to create a better life for themselves because they’ve been able to get scholarships,” said Saban, who will make $11.5 million in the last year of his current contract in 2028.
“That’s what college athletics is supposed to be. … It’s not supposed to be something where people come to make money.”
In the process, Saban insulted historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) by insinuating that the only way a school like Jackson State could land a star recruit — in this case, No. 2 overall recruit Travis Hunter — was by paying them $1 million directly. Never mind that Jackson State head coach Deion Sanders’ multiyear contract he signed in 2020 is worth only $1.2 million in total or that Jackson State’s total revenue during the 2019-20 fiscal year was $8.3 million — or in other words, just 4.3% of the Alabama program’s $189.3 million in revenue and less than Saban’s annual salary of $10.6 million.
Or never mind that Hunter is a cornerback and may have wanted to play for one of the best defensive backs in NFL history, or that — like Jerry Rice and Michael Strahan and Walter Payton and Deacon Jones before him — maybe Hunter found value in playing at an HBCU. You know, since Hunter is Black.
But this follows a pattern of disrespect targeted toward HBCUs.
Power 5 programs treat HBCUs like charity cases, offering to pay Black schools for the privilege of getting blown out by their better-resourced teams in so-called “money games.” HBCU coaches are rarely, if ever, hired by predominantly white programs. And HBCU players are considered less-than when they become professional prospects: Former Howard University defensive back Antoine Bethea was told by an NFL scout that the 14-year retired pro would never “play on the next level.”
Making fun of a school whose last national championship win came before World War II and whose most recent star eventually admitted to receiving impermissible benefits is one thing. But denigrating HBCUs, which both can’t compete with Power 5 budgets and have to accept their charity, reeks of anger disguised as jealousy — jealousy that stems from believing something, or someone, was stolen from you.
Saban claims this is all about fairness and the sanctity of amateurism. But that excuse, at least since 2020 when the Supreme Court decided that athletes could profit from their likenesses, is played out.
It’s not about parity: Saban’s Crimson Tide have won six of a possible 15 national championships since he was hired in 2007; an SEC school has won 11 titles in the same time period.
It isn’t about losing out on having the top-ranked recruiting class: After having the No. 1 class every season from 2012 to 2015, Alabama missed out on the top spot three times between 2016 and 2021.
What this is about is no longer being able to exert control. For the first time ever, Black players aren’t beholden to the millionaire, mostly white coaches who run their programs. Players can decide to remove themselves from a bad situation and not be prevented from leaving. They, like their coaches, can negotiate for better pay. Almost every privilege that has been afforded to coaches (make sure to catch Saban in the newest Aflac commercial!) and administrators are now available to players, and suddenly there’s a problem. Suddenly, players can be “bought” at the low, low price of a couple hundred thousand dollars.
This is all about Saban sustaining his recruiting prowess in the future now that, “C’mon, it’s Bama” and doing the Cupid Shuffle are no longer enough to seal the deal.
“This is all bad for college sports,” Saban told the audience.
But what he really meant was: “This is all bad for me.”