SEC coaches all in one fight, vs. NIL: Billy Napier calls it living in a land with no laws

David Whitley
Gator Sports

MIRAMAR BEACH — LSU coach Brian Kelly was talking to a scrum of reporters about Topic No. 1 at the SEC Spring Meetings, when league commissioner Greg Sankey slinked up behind him and listened in.

It was right after the football coaches' meeting. The first time Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher had been in the same room since they went semi-nuclear on each other. 

“Great coaches care about the players,” Kelly said. “And, you know, I think it makes for good coverage, but they weren’t wrestling in there.”

Score another one for Sankey, who grinned with approval.

He came here to “turn the page” on Jimbo vs. Nick. SEC employees have followed the party line. Nobody wants to wake up with a horse’s head in their beach resort bed.

So if Saban and Fisher weren’t wrestling behind closed conference room doors, what has been on the agenda?

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NIL remains main issue; not Saban vs. Fisher 

Topic No. 1 is Name, Image and Likeness. It’s also Topic No. 2, 4, 5 and 7, with maybe the transfer portal and football scheduling thrown in somewhere.

That other topic?

"We're moving on" Fisher said about a dozen times during a Wednesday press conference.

“I don’t have a problem with Jimbo,” Saban said the day before.

I guess getting called a good-for-nothing scoundrel is all in a day’s work for Alabama’s coach. Saban obviously wants to move on from his “A&M bought every player on their team” faux pas.

He is quite willing to discuss NIL. The problem is that NIL is a lot like Mark Twain’s musing on the weather.

Everybody’s talking about it, but nobody really knows what the heck to do about it.

"Every door you open has a trapdoor behind it," Fisher said.

“It’s a frustrating time,” Sankey said.

That frustration is at the root of the Saban-Fisher non-spat. The initial NIL idea had players earning honest endorsement money or getting free pizza after they got to school. It’s quickly become pay-for-play, with booster “collectives” offering piles of cash to recruits and transfers.

The Aggies’ pile supposedly lured the top recruiting class ever, though Fisher keeps insisting the players were simply impressed with A&M’s famed animal husbandry program.

He’s made the point that Aggies have done nothing illegal. And that’s the problem. When it comes to procuring football talent these days, it seems nothing is illegal.

The NCAA sent out an NIL guidance memo last month clarifying that boosters aren’t allowed to recruit. To which collectives say, “Recruiting? Who, us?”

The line between “inducing” a player and offering Johnny QB $100,000 for endorsing LifeWallet if he signs with School X is pretty fuzzy.

“There’s a ton of gray area relative to what you can do, what you can’t do,” Florida coach Billy Napier said.

Where's the leadership?

Big-money boosters aren’t idiots. They write contracts they think will stand up to NCAA scrutiny, assuming there is any.

The organization makes Barney Fife look like Magnum P.I. And the NCAA is about 0-for-182 in court verdicts when it comes to controlling athletes’ compensation and other rights.

In the gaping absence of NCAA leadership, states have written a patchwork of NIL rules. What you can get away with in California, you can’t in Minnesota.

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Conferences have turned to the federal government for help. But Congress moves more slowly than a 439-pound lineman, and nobody knows what anti-trust regulations might bring. Collective bargaining? Unions? Players becoming school employees?

"I don’t think they want contracts," Kelly said. "I don’t think they want to be traded. I’m sure they don’t want to be cut.”

Florida coach Billy Napier weighs in 

Everybody from Saban to Fisher to Eli Drinkwitz agrees there needs to be more transparency, less booster influence, guardrails, some sort of structure and accountability.

“I use the term, 'Living in a land with no laws,'” Napier said. “It very much continues to be kind of a very fluid situation.”

I asked Sankey that given the fluidity, the enforcement problems, the potential litigation, when might the NIL mayhem be brought under control?

He paused for a few seconds, then just said, “Yes.”

A few seconds of silence later, he started elaborating on the issues with NIL. I think his real answer was, “Yes, we’ve got a mess on our hands.”

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That’s why NIL is really Topic No. 1. Though fear not, tabloid fans. That other topic will be brought up another million times or so before Alabama and Texas A&M meet in October.

For now, however, Jimbo vs. Nick is under control. As for what is causing their frustration, there is no end in sight.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley