The Best Game: Football

As an American, we all know that the greatest sport is football, and Europeans would agree, just not with "American Football."

However, let's consider the similarities between European sports and college football here in the US. By examining similarities, we can gain insights into the evolution of college athletes and learn from the pitfalls that have plagued an industry using a similar model for over a century.

A number of key aspects of modern college football parallel European soccer, leading us to question whether college sports had a professional structure long before NIL.

Promotion & Relegation

If you are unfamiliar with European soccer, the Promotion-Relegation system is based on a team's success. If a team performs well in the third tier, they move up to the second tier, while the worst team in the top league is relegated to a lower division. Does this sound familiar?

Maybe not, but when we examine the divisions across the NCAA, we see that their establishment is also rooted in the principles of success leading to advancement.

Even the frequent changes in university conferences mirror the concept of promotion-relegation, as conferences have begun to operate as their own leagues. Major conferences, like the SEC, prioritize schools with prominent names and winning records. This aspect of college athletics has proven effective over the past century, allowing for continual talent balancing and the creation of the best product.

Yes, there are drawbacks, such as schools cutting sports or facing financial difficulties when they fall down to lower divisions, but the system as a whole ensures a competitive landscape and discourages subpar efforts.

So, if schools are reshaping conferences and cutting sports to reduce costs and create an entertaining product, one might ask: what remains amateur about college sports?

NIL & Financial Fair Play

Let's delve into European soccer's history for a moment. In 2009, UEFA (Union of European Football Association), the European equivalent of the NCAA, introduced Financial Fair Play (FFP), a form of salary cap.

Prior to that, teams could spend unlimited amounts on players and pay them exorbitant salaries. Introducing a salary cap seems straightforward, right? However, implementing it across 55 different countries, each with its own higher and lower divisions, proved challenging.

Some countries generated billions of dollars while others struggled to avoid financial losses. Sound familiar? It should. NIL was introduced to allow players to earn money, and school collectives have amplified its impact.

But how do we hold schools like Oregon, which made $270,488,471 million dollars last year, to the same rules as James Madison, which lost $48,243,539? The current atmosphere surrounding NIL will eventually give way to concrete rules. Just like FFP, which has had minimal enforcement, few punishments, and little transparency, we shouldn't expect immediate clarity.

The truth is, we won't have all the answers on how NIL is supposed to operate anytime soon, as interpretations of the rules will persist until they don't. When punishments are handed out, expect little explanation beyond "You broke our rules, and we don't like it."

It's reminiscent of a childhood friend who would constantly make up rules and declare victory based on arbitrary additions or interpretations, threatening to take their ball and go home if you don’t agree. In this analogy, the NCAA and UEFA are that friend, willing to take their ball and go home if challenged.

Youth Academies & High School Prep Teams

The notion that college sports start at 18 and professional sports after college is a common belief in the United States. On the flip side of that, in European soccer, players often join academies as young as four years old, directly linked to professional teams.

While this level of early involvement is considered extreme, we see a similar trend in the United States, where youth athletes specialize in a single sport as early as six years old, focusing on their potential for college and professional careers instead of simply enjoying sports like children should.

This specialization becomes more evident as high schools establish programs specifically designed to prepare athletes for college sports. These high schools, openly promoting themselves as "college prep" institutions, provide athletes with a streamlined path to college athletics.

Take IMG Academy for example. "The world leader in sports education" according to their website. Clearly, athletic performance is priority one.

While this phenomenon is still on a smaller scale compared to European youth academies, it is growing, with more students enrolling in prep schools for athletic advantages and being expected to make these decisions at increasingly younger ages.

Transfers & The Portal

We are well aware that 5-star athletes in college athletics often transfer if they don't receive sufficient playing time during their freshman season.

In professional soccer, free agency and player trades are not as common as US pro sports. Instead, Soccer uses a transfer system which  allows teams to buy and sell player contracts.

With the introduction of collectives and NIL, we’ve seen a similar trend emerge in college football: players are now being paid significant sums to switch schools. Although those payments (or NIL deals a player is promised) may violate the current rules against "pay-to-play," they are not being strictly enforced—yet.

Transfers in European soccer face similar challenges, with teams often exceeding the salary cap imposed by FFP. However, these violations are typically overlooked until they are not.

Transfers can be confusing, especially since how much collectives spend on players’ NIL is protected by FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), and athletes make appearances for the collectives using their NIL. Is it a clear violation of the rules?

Maybe, maybe not. The key is to avoid being the last one holding the metaphorical "hot potato."

Intermediaries & Collectives

Lastly, let's explore the most intricate aspect: how schools pay without directly paying and how professional teams approach players under contract with other teams without tampering. Intermediaries and Collectives provide the answer.

In soccer, Intermediaries work with a player's agent and a target team to facilitate transfer deals. Similarly, collectives work with players coming to schools. However, there are dangers associated with these arrangements.

What happens when an intermediary makes false promises or fails to fulfill them?

What if they lack the connections they claim to have, or the collective offers money they cannot deliver?

An example is Jaden Rashada, who was allegedly promised $13 million to join Florida but ultimately never made the move. The collective, if the alleged reports are true, misrepresented its financial capabilities, and the deal collapsed.

When these types of issues arise, who should be punished—the collective, the school, the player, or all of them? Although we cannot precisely predict the repercussions, we do know that they will occur.

European soccer has already tackled similar issues by imposing stricter regulations on intermediaries, requiring licensing through UEFA, and establishing clearer guidelines—though still not entirely clear—for their operations.

Ultimately, whether participants and fans of college football want to acknowledge it or not, they are following a path paved by European soccer. Rather than spending decades reinventing the wheel, we should embrace this model as an opportunity to improve and refine the structure. European soccer's system has already proven effective, and by recognizing the parallels within college football, we can expedite the development of more definitive rules and operate with less ambiguity.

Hunter Davis

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