During Nick Saban’s 10 seasons at Alabama, 65 Crimson Tide players have been drafted into the NFL. Today, 21 of those players are out of pro football, including 12 who were selected in the first four rounds. That is to say: Julio Jones is Julio Jones, and many, many others are not Julio Jones but nurse those same physical scars of SEC football.
In May, they watched as Saban became the highest-paid coach in American sports—not to mention one of the highest-paid public employees in the country—by signing a contract extension that will pay him more than $11 million per year.
Terry Bradshaw labeled the salary as “shameful.” A Chicago Tribune headline: “Nick Saban's obscene new salary blurs the line between college and pros.” But what do the forgotten alumni of America’s most successful football powerhouse think? Do the men whose careers ended at the doorstep of fame and fortune believe Saban deserves the cash? Should college football players be compensated, beyond their living expenses and a paid-for education? In short, yes and yes.
“Here’s what I will say,” says former Alabama defensive back Marquis Johnson. “I don't need Nick’s salary. Saban deserves that $11.5 million, like LeBron should make $100 million.”
Johnson played two years the NFL, appearing in five games between the 2010 and ’11 seasons as a seventh-round pick of the Rams. He’s had 12 surgeries related to his four years of college football, with operations on his hip, thumb and knee during his time in Tuscaloosa. A knee hyperextension as a senior stunted his NFL development and inspired him to start a medical sales company in Atlanta—24 Consulting (the “24” being an homage to his jersey number at Alabama). During his four years in school, the University of Alabama’s profits from football alone totaled just under $200 million.
“I look at the grand scheme of things,” Johnson says. “I provided a product and we [won] every year. If I’m Nick Saban, I should make that money, but we have enough money where my players should make that money, too.”
Saban himself has toed the line on the issue, saying he supports paying players but doesn’t know of a fair way to accomplish that goal. He’s argued that paying players runs the risk of devaluing scholarships, and that universities already invest a great deal into the athletic and academic success of players.
“We can’t pay them but we can reinvest in trying to help them be successful in their future,” Saban said in 2014, “which I think we do a marvelous job here at the University of Alabama. I think a lot of people do. I think that’s what makes great programs. I think that’s why players want to come and be a part of the program, because we do reinvest in the future and their chances of being successful, and we do care. And it’s not just about football.”
More than 18 months after Northwestern football players were denied in their attempt to unionize, there has been little progress on the matter. The only notable progress: In February, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that football players at private university are employees, and therefore entitled to protection from unfair labor practices. (That ruling will not affect Alabama, a public school.)
It’s true that Alabama football spends a great deal of resources on the academic success of its players. For example, Johnson took advantage of a hired note-taker for classes through his junior season. But some players argue the rigor of the college football calendar prevented them from taking part in extracurriculars essential to employers, such as internships and part-time jobs in the field of their choosing.
Nico Johnson, a fourth-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013, spent three seasons in the league with three different teams, appearing in 18 games at linebacker while never fully recovering from a sports hernia surgery following his final game at Alabama. This year, he found himself across the desk from a potential employer, describing his work experience.
“You try to explain to them in the interview that you don’t have this experience because you’ve been playing football your entire life, and a lot of [employers] don’t like to hear that,” Nico Johnson says. “They said, We like you, everything is good, but you lack this experience. I said, I’m eager to learn. I’m going to try to perfect it and be the best of what I’m doing, just like in football. But they said they weren’t able to hire me.
“I have my degree, but because I don’t have that experience, like a regular college kid who had an internship for two years, it’s easier for him to get a job.”
Nico Johnson says he once believed paying college football players would be a distraction to players and programs, but recently he’s come around to the idea of compensating athletes in revenue sports.
“I was always the guy who said, ‘How would they manage that?’ I thought like Saban, prepared like Saban. And I thought, if players got paid, would that keep players from putting forth that effort?
“But I just had to sit back and be real and think about how difficult it was to do things I really wanted to do. I talk to the kids there today about how difficult it is just to go home one weekend because they don’t have enough money for gas. You should be able to enjoy yourself a little bit.”
The three former Alabama players who spoke to The MMQB wondered how paying college football players would affect the collegial atmosphere of the sport. There’s an inherent risk, they said, in making big-time college football feel too much like pro football.
“I just think there’s something about college—it made me appreciate the pureness of the sport so much more,” says Barrett Jones, who won the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the top center in college football, in 2012 but was out of the NFL by ’14. “You’re playing for the guy next to you, you're playing for the love of the game. Of course there’s still that in the NFL, and also, if they paid athletes in college, I’d like to think that same sentiment would remain.”
Jones graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA, majoring in accounting. For him, the NFL was never the “be-all, end-all” goal. He didn’t see college as a mere vehicle to get to the NFL; he just wanted to savor the college experience. But as his team won games the individual accolades followed, and soon he was being mentioned as a top draft prospect.
But in the 2012 SEC Championship game on Dec. 1, Jones injured his foot. Afterward, doctors diagnosed a Lisfranc injury. They advised him against playing in the BCS title game later that month, but Jones insisted. “The doctors were awesome,” Jones says, noting that at no point did they pressure him to play. Rather, they did everything they could to help accommodate him. They flew him to Oregon (with a cast and motorized scooter) for a session at Nike’s headquarters to get fit for a customized shoe. The training staff flew out an anti-gravity treadmill to Miami [the site of the title game] just for Jones. He was the only one to use it.
“Do I have regrets?” Jones says. “No. I’m glad I did it. For the NFL, it probably wasn’t the smartest move. I had a surgery after the season and that put me out a few months. I couldn't participate in the combine, which affected my stock. I wasn't the same physically after that.”
“The injury, it probably cost me a little bit in my draft position, which cost me money. Did my NFL career pan out as well as I thought it could have? No. But I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”
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