ATHENS, Ga. — Carson Beck got a Lamborghini. Well, maybe he just leased it. Or maybe it’s just free use of one from the dealership in exchange for endorsements. Either way, Beck was photographed this week holding the keys to a Lamborghini Urus Performante, which we were told retails for about $270,000.
In the old days, it would have resulted in an immediate NCAA investigation. That is if we even knew about it, which we would not because everyone would have been smart enough not to call attention to it. Because the only way a college athlete could afford a swank new car would be, well, you know, bad. So very, very bad.
In the new days, Beck’s car still produced some baying, including one hot take that it shows “We broke college football.”
We’ve officially crossed a line now. I wanted college players to be compensated. This is obscene.
We broke college football. https://t.co/AolK7qVZRK
— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) February 7, 2024
Oh no, won’t someone think of the children?!
No, we did not break college football. College football changed, which is why it’s in this ongoing swirl of chaotic change. It’s why there are all the court cases, all the changes to the status quo, this vision of college football that so many grew up thinking was right and good.
On a legal level, it was always suspect. On a fairness level, it was always about the money.
There was once a time when there wasn’t as much money involved. Bear Bryant’s salary as Alabama coach in 1958 was $143,000. Bo Schembechler’s salary at Michigan in 1969 was $135,127. When Bobby Bowden took the Florida State job in 1976 he was earning just $35,000.
Yes, that was still a lot of money at the time, adjusted for inflation, and no the players weren’t getting a cut. But it was still much easier back then to say the players were getting the value of a scholarship and the exposure for the pros when the coaches’ salaries weren’t gargantuan.
The conferences and schools weren’t raking it in. In 1980, the SEC’s total payout to its 10 schools was just $4.1 million. Ten years later, it was up to $16.3 million. A key thing happened in between: The schools, led by Georgia and Oklahoma, sued the NCAA to be able to have conferences sell their television rights and won at the Supreme Court. From there, the dollars rolled in.
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The SEC payout went up to $73.2 million in 2000. It more than doubled within a decade. And on Thursday, the conference announced its total revenues at $741 million.
And, of course, by now the coaches were earning millions. Such as Florida’s Billy Napier, handsomely paid $7.1 million but fully cognizant it doesn’t make sense to say the players shouldn’t get anything.
“It’s foolish to say the players don’t deserve a piece of the pie,” Napier said during the summer of 2022.
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That brings us back to Beck and his Lamborghini. For those still seeking changes to the system, it’s a terrible example: Beck did not leverage the transfer portal to get more money. He is the returning starting quarterback for the team that probably will be the preseason No. 1 team. He will be 22 in November and in his fifth year in college. His coach will be earning $11 million. His offensive coordinator will be earning $1.1 million.
It’s perfectly reasonable for Beck to be driving around in a $270,000 car, plus whatever he’s able to get on the free market. And the same should go for every player. Everyone else in the sport is participating in a free market. The players should be too — and out in the open, not under the table and with the shady actors of the pre-NIL recruiting world.
But it’s reasonable for the coaches and schools to want their players to not leverage the portal every year. Among other rules, and it appears the only way to get that to pass legal muster will be contracts, collective bargaining and some kind of employee status. This is one of the key points in the debate about the future of college athletics. But we’re having this debate for a simple reason: money.
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This pure world of college football, where the players are amateurs and the coaches and administrators are just molders of young men, doesn’t exist. Maybe it sort of did, but it doesn’t anymore. The coaches are well-paid. The administrators — the ones who have their schools switch conferences to chase TV dollars — are well paid. The others involved in the game, from sportscasters to television executives to other media members, are well-paid. They’re all well-paid because they get their share out of the free market, and thus the players do too.
That’s why the current debate is here. If we could snap our fingers and agree that everyone involved — coaches, administrators, TV personalities, media members — only worked for small, fixed salaries, then maybe the players could just play for the value of a scholarship.
But that’s not happening. That’s why Beck deserves whatever car he can get. That’s why, until the people who run college sports devise a system that isn’t an antitrust violation, recruits or transfers are going to be able to leverage their status for more money.
It always been about money. Too many are losing sight of that: We’re not in the current state because of lawyers, judges and rabble-rousing media members. We’re in it because of the money. As soon as it began pouring into college sports, it had to trickle down to the people playing the game.
Now it’s more than just a trickle. That’s not bad. It takes some getting used to. But the antiquated notion of amateur college football players is long gone because the antiquated notion of amateur college football was even longer gone. The old system wasn’t worth preserving because it wasn’t fair or legal. The new system hopefully will preserve what’s right and good about college sports while being fair and legal.
In the meantime, let the players enjoy their cars. And let’s enjoy that it’s out in the open. Beck being able to accept a Lamborghini and being able to publicize it isn’t a broken world. It’s progress.
(Photo: Nick Tre. Smith / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)