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Corpus Christi Caller-Times
ATLANTA — The fourth championship game of the College Football Playoff era will take place here Monday night in the world's most spectacular stadium, in America's pre-eminent college football city, between two blueblood programs from neighboring states where the story lines are thick with familiarity.
By all rights, Alabama-Georgia for the national title should be the greatest showcase yet for this relatively new Playoff, with future NFL stars all over the field, fans paying $2,000 and up for the privilege of getting in the stadium and even President Trump coming to watch it.
But underneath the glitz of Monday night's Atlanta extravaganza, it's hard to shake the feeling that college football is unwittingly being driven into a ditch.
The supposed guardians of this sport — from the conference commissioners to the athletics directors to television executives — have long acted like arrogant frat boys on a long weekend in Vegas, pretending as though every reckless decision will be free of consequence.
And now it might be finally catching up to them.
As good as the business of college football might seem on the surface on Monday night, the cracks are forming.
This matchup between Nick Saban and his longtime assistant Kirby Smart actually was the third-biggest story of the week leading up to the championship game.
First was the "#MeToo" movement hitting college football, as Arizona's Rich Rodriguez was fired amidst a sexual harassment accusation. The second was LSU making a splashy announcement that Dave Aranda, who was being pursued by division rival Texas A&M, had been retained with a new deal reported to be worth $10 million guaranteed over four years. LSU also announced that it had paid offensive coordinator Matt Canada $1.7 million not to coach, 12 months after handing him a three-year deal.
Meanwhile, Texas A&M, the school that gave Jimbo Fisher a 10-year, $75 million contract, then turned around and lured Notre Dame's defensive coordinator Mike Elko for a contract starting at $1.8 million annually. And the cycle of raises probably isn't done yet for this year, much less 2018 and beyond.
Let's first focus on the salaries because they directly tie to what we will see Monday night: College football coordinators for schools trying to reach the heights of Alabama and Georgia are now $2 million per year employees.
"I think that's a hell of a good idea," said Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, whose $850,000 salary seems pauper-like by comparison.
But with $2 million now becoming the new norm for top assistants, a rubicon has been crossed. When I pulled SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey aside Saturday at media day for the championship game to get his reaction, he largely agreed that it felt like a significant moment in the same way it did when college football had its first $1 million head coach, its first $2 million head coach, its first $5 million coach and so on.
While Sankey professed the expected interest and typical concern for what those escalating salaries mean, he believes the market eventually will reach a limit, which is an odd thing to say considering it has never happened in the history of college sports.
"There is an end," Sankey said. "There is."
From his home in California, Sonny Vaccaro laughed at that notion when I called him on Saturday. The people who run college sports might now have a distaste for Vaccaro, the former shoe company executive turned NCAA agitator, but he has been right all along about one thing: There's plenty of money in the system to share the wealth with the athletes who help create it. And the fact that money is going to the likes of Aranda rather than the players that people will pay thousands of dollars to watch is a conscious choice that is becoming impossible for schools to morally defend.
"Coming from me, it's going to be dismissed," Vaccaro said. "But this is pushing the limits of the frustration, the sadness of the whole organization because there is no end for financially rewarding people inside the system whether its an assistant coach, the athletic director or whoever. And the reason is there's no end is because they control all the money. Next time it'll be $3 million or someone gets a new house on the golf course. They have no conscience at all about the reality of the situation."
At least when you're paying Nick Saban $11 million or Dabo Swinney $8.5 million or Urban Meyer $6.4 million, schools can tie that cost directly to the image of the university. The numbers may be obscene, but there's no argument to be made against their value as championship-winning football coaches in all facets of running the school. Alabama is a better university academically because Saban's championships have helped attract talent in every department from chemistry to social sciences; Clemson's campus and its student body have been enhanced because people saw Swinney's product on television and thought that might be cool to be part of.
But when you start defending coordinators making upwards of $2 million a year as an integral tie to higher education or having value to a university that extends beyond the reach of football, you're just not telling the truth, particularly while players are told that accepting anything beyond the value of their scholarships is anathema to the sacred rules of amateurism.
Maybe the NCAA model always had been indefensible, but it feels like it's being flaunted in a way that no intelligent person can rationalize any longer, and it's being done in college football for a group largely composed of wealthy, white men clinging to an ideal the public no longer has a strong belief in.
A nationwide poll last fall conducted by the Washington Post and University of Massachusetts-Lowell showed that only 52% of Americans now believe a scholarship is adequate compensation for college athletes and that 66% believe athletes should be paid when their name, image or likeness are used for commercial purposes.
And the trend lines of those numbers compared to polls in previous years reveal a simple truth: People's eyes have been opened to the inequity and greed of college athletics, and support for the current NCAA model is only going to drop as the largesse of the system is put in plain sight as it has been during a playoff system ESPN has paid about $470 million per year through 2025 to broadcast.
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