You think college football is in transfer portal chaos? The only way to fix it: Pay the players (2024)

Shawn WindsorDetroit Free Press

Four Michigan State football players put their names in the transfer portal Tuesday. This wasn’t a coincidence. Wednesday was the deadline for the spring transfer period.

For those counting ... ah, who is counting anymore, right? But if you are, 18 players have put their names in the portal this last cycle.

This is understandable, obviously, considering MSU made a coaching change. It’s also just the way of college football. The good news for new head coach Jonathan Smith is the portal works both ways, and he’s been able to rebuild the roster, at least temporarily.

In fact, on the day that Jaren and Jaden Mangham, and Ethan BoydandGeno VanDeMark put their names in the portal, Ed Woods committed to MSU from Arizona State. Again, though, the Spartans are hardly alone in the transfer era. Some programs have replaced more than half their rosters.

“I’m coming to restore, to replaceand reenergize,” Deion Sanders famously told his Colorado players during an introductory meeting last year. “Some of y’all are salvageable.”

Harsh? Absolutely.

But then he was hired to win. No winning, no job. That’s it. That’s the expectation. And that's reality. No wonder some 71 players have left since Sanders' introduction, roughly 20 of them left on their own.

The pro football icon shocked with his bluntness. Yet no one should have been. All he did was distill what college football has been about for a long time anyway. And if a coach can come in and clean house, then a player can damn well transfer.

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Then transfer again. Or think about transferring and then change his mind and not transfer. Or commit, take some NIL money, learn of a better offer a few months later, and then transfer. The last one happened at MSU earlier this year.

And you know what? Good for the player. He probably got more money, or a better situation, or both.

This is the system, and if it has swung too far away from the university’s control, well then it had to, as so often happens when structures need to change, and college football needed to change. Not the game, not the competition on the field — that's never been better — but the way schools and coaches made money and players did not.

Now, has it led to a feeling of chaos? Has it made it harder to build teams? To develop cohesion and continuity?

Of course. But that’s just because it’s new, and no one is used to it. Except for the pros, where coaches and team builders routinely replace 30-40% of their rosters every year.

Dan Campbell has built a pretty good culture with the Detroit Lions, don’t you think? It’s a good bet culture won’t tank when the front office lets good players walk, as it will certainly have to do the next few seasons.

College coaches and athletic departments are just going to have to adapt. And they will. And they already have — to a degree.

Either that or leave, as Nick Saban recently did, and then question the pay-for-play aspect of the enterprise on the way out, as if it hadn’t been that way for decades.

“You’re going to create a caste system where the rich will get richer and the poor get poorer,” he said at a Congressional hearing in March. “... eventually the fans will look at it like, ‘I really don’t want to watch the game.’”

Saban is right about one thing: fans do tune out after a while when the same teams keep competing, especially if those teams are from more or less the same place ... like Alabama and Georgia, say.

Yet that was happening before NIL, because a few programs stockpiled talent by (cough, cough) convincing their programs would best prepare them for the world.

Michigan’s win over Alabama in the Rose Bowl was the most watched game since 2017, and the Wolverines victory over Washington in the national title game was the most watched CFP final in four years.

Stories matter. But also brands matter, and competition matters, and stars matter, and while some stars change teams, if those stars stay in college football, then college football isn’t going anywhere.

Pay for play? Heck yes. This is how our system works. It should be pay for play. In theory, though, NIL can spread the wealth a little more, at least beyond the few teams that were hoarding the best players for a decade.

Yes, it’s still random. If a school has a particularly wealthy alum who happens to love football, that can turn a program. But then that happened before NIL, too. Oregon, anyone?

What’s unsettling to some who love the sport, and to coaches like Saban, is that the combination of NIL and the portal is turning the sport into a free for all. At least it feels like it, right? (Some 3,500 players entered the portal this last cycle.)

But this isn’t true if we consider the NFL where, again, roster turnover is annual and widespread and ... fair. Does that game feel like a free-for-all?

Of course it doesn’t.

And neither should college football. Besides, the number of transfers will slow when the extra COVID year disappears.

That alone will help roster stability, and then coaches can figure out how much emphasis to put on high school recruiting and how much on retention and how much on the portal. No matter where they find players, however, the players eventually need to be paid directly by the schools.

They are employees and must be treated as such. If schools paid them, then they could draw up contracts, and the players could unionize — like the basketball team did at Dartmouth early this year — and the players and the school could agree, up front and in writing, how long the player must stay on campus, just like players do in the NFL.

If schools and coaches and fans want players to stay a little longer before seeking “free agency,” then schools should come up with a system that allows them to designate a free agency period, which means treating them like the employees they’ve always been and pay them.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 Follow him @shawnwindsor.

You think college football is in transfer portal chaos? The only way to fix it: Pay the players (2024)


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