'Sustainable,' 'Professional sport': 5 things Lane Kiffin said about NIL, NCAA

The college football season is long over. Class of 2022 recruitment has closed. Class of 2023 is still slow. Yet name, image and likeness has continued to headline the college sports cycle.

About a week after Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher and Deion Sanders got into a middle-school-esque argument about who buys players, who doesn’t, and who is toeing the line of NIL rules, Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin sat down with Sports Illustrated for a discussion about NIL and how collectives are being used.

Among his messages: The NCAA should move to a professional model. After all:

“We’re a professional sport,” Kiffin said to SI. “And they are professional players.”

Here are five notable pieces of his Q&A with the outlet.

"Players should get paid"

(John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)

“And they shouldn’t be [paid] all equal.”

Kiffin referenced the “real world” in this answer, saying that it should operate like a true workforce. Workers deserve to profit more than a paid education, he feels, and it’s unrealistic for a company to pay its worst player the same as its best.

Many high-level people around the NCAA and football world have expressed dismay at either paying players in general or how the NCAA passed a rule without establishing clear guidelines. Rules differ state-by-state for high school associations, which has made recruiting more complex for all parties.

But many people also support the players having a chance to make money for their labors on the field, in revenue sports like football and basketball and non-revenue like many Olympic sports.

"The player can opt into free agency and come back"

(Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports)

“How’s that not going to happen all the time? It should. It will.”

Kiffin said that the vast majority of teenagers who don’t come from money will look at the cash as the most important piece of recruiting. It isn’t facilities, it isn’t coaches, it’s money.

“And how would you blame them?” he asked rhetorically.

He doesn’t think the fight for money will stop once they’ve enrolled at a school. As we’ve seen in the offseason, the transfer portals have massive action, with players transferring left and right with promises of more money. Kiffin takes it a step further — he said that if nothing changes, it could — and should — become like free agency.

“Why did Bryce Young not go into the portal? If you are advising Bryce Young, why do you not go into the portal and walk into Nick Saban’s office and say, ‘Hey, I want to be here, but I’ve got to protect myself so I’m going to go into the portal. And I want to come back as long as it’s matched with what I get out there.’”

The player — Heisman Winning quarterback Bryce Young, in Kiffin’s theoretical example — could take a look at the environment, see if anyone is going to offer him a massive payday, and then decide what’s best for him in both money and culture. Similar to professional free agency. Which is what Kiffin thinks the NCAA has turned into.

"That donor is now what? The owner."

(Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports)

“What’s going to happen when the lead donor calls and says to play this guy, and you don’t — do you not get fired?”

Kiffin was asked about his time as head coach of the then-Oakland Raiders, when he battled with owner Al Davis about playing time of quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who had been picked first overall in the draft.

The general managers often make personnel decisions, but the owners have a say and have control. If the owner demands something happens, it does.

While donors are not owners, they do supply the money flow. If someone donating millions of dollars is not seeing a return on an investment, that person could become more demanding to the athletic director.

“How is that not going to be an issue — that the donor pays the money for the player, and you’re not playing them and that same donor gets you hired and fired,” Kiffin said.

Donors already have some say in football operations, but when their dollars have a more direct result in the big-time recruits attending a school, their say may be taken more seriously.

"The (solution) that seems simple is there’s a cap."

(USA TODAY Network)

“How are we not a professional sport? What is the difference?”

Kiffin was asked about a solution and provided an answer alongside the previously aforementioned “free agency” opinion. He brought up salary caps.

There are professional sports that can tell the tale of how salary caps work. How big-market teams usually get the player, but some leagues have worked to equalize playing fields with salary caps, franchise tags in the NFL, and supermax contract allowances in the NBA.

There are no salary regulations in the NCAA, and there also aren’t contracts. Players can enroll at a school for one year and then enter the transfer portal to see if better options are on the table.

“And how is it not being seen that, unless there are changes of rules around caps and contracts, how is every elite college player not at the end of their season [entering the portal]?”

Kiffin went on:

“We’re a professional sport, and they are professional players. Contracted employees without contracts.”

"It is sustainable."

John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

“If there’s something big-money people are motivated to do, they do.”

Despite all the issues with NIL and the NCAA’s explanations of the rules, Kiffin is confident that the NIL is sustainable. Things change and teams adapt. They must.

“To say that it’s not sustainable, why? Ten years ago, no one would have said schools were going to pay coaches $10 million a year. Well, they do now.”

His message essentially boils down to that he believes donors will want to continue paying hefty amounts into the collectives to help convince players to attend their university of choice.

“Those are the same donors that pay $30 to $40 million to one coach — when they fire him! But they’re not going to raise $20 million a year for players? Yeah, they are.”

He compared donors to minority owners. If they put in enough money, they can have a pretty big say around the program of how things should operate. And everyone wants to own a sports team.

More from HSS:

Calvin Johnson, Shannon Sharpe among Georgia HS Football Hall of Fame inductees.

Four-star RB Roderick Robinson stays in state, commits to UCLA.

In the NIL world of recruiting, does the college town still matter?

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