There’s no arguing that college football is currently going through the largest period of change in its history. The NCAA is getting smacked in court, players have finally been granted the right to monetize their name, image, and likeness, and conference realignment is back with a vengeance. Understandably, a lot of people are talking about college football right now. And, thanks to the internet, they’re talking about it very publicly. But everyone is falling into a common talking season pitfall. The conversation is being dominated by flawed terms and NCAA phraseology designed, as always, to turn us against the athletes. We as fans need to seriously think about the words we use when talking about this stuff because how we talk about college football matters.
I know what you’re probably thinking. “What are you talking about? This is so pretentious. Who cares?” Well, the NCAA sure does. They’ve been controlling public perception through deliberate word choices for decades now. Players are known as “student-athletes”, meaning they are students first, athletes second. In reality, this is just a make-believe term invented to keep the NCAA from having to pay worker’s comp. What about the organization’s foundational mission to keep players from becoming professionals that are paid to compete? Well, they’ve manipulated language to the point that this is literally impossible. NCAA bylaw 12.02.10 defines the word “pay” as “the receipt of funds, awards or benefits not permitted by [the NCAA] for participation in athletics.” The NCAA can’t pay players because any money they give out isn’t considered payment. It’s straight up Catch-22 logic. This leads to a hilarious thread where they go on to define professional athletes and teams as “whatever we decide they are”. Now I know dissecting NCAA bylaws is the least sexy thing on planet Earth, but it’s proof that the words we use matter.
So what does this have to do with us right now? Well, the way most people are talking about NIL is reductive at best. You would think endorsement deals are some kind of sorcery that conjures dollar bills out of thin air. Or on the other end of the spectrum, they’re booster schemes meant to funnel money to players. It’s time we start calling NIL deals by their real names: jobs. These athletes aren’t doing anything out of the ordinary. Social media influencers aren’t anything special, so why is it any different just because they play quarterback for Alabama? The number one high school recruit in the nation just announced that he was graduating a year early because the state of Texas doesn’t allow high schoolers to sign these deals. But why not? I knew plenty of girls in high school that got paid to advertise products on Instagram. Most of them played sports too, and nobody batted an eye. What makes Quinn Ewers any different? Just because he had a write-up in ESPN doesn’t mean he should have to play by an entirely different set of rules. Not only does this have some pretty sexist implications (not surprising given the NCAA’s track record), but it’s also completely backwards logic. This is a lot more obvious when you talk about it in terms of a job instead of just NIL money. Preventing someone from working and making money only because they play a sport is just un-American. The more we use incorrect language, the more normal it seems. We have to start caring about the words we use, because how we talk about the new age of college football matters.