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Opinion Two cheers for the first college football national championship of the name-image-likeness era

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart speaks with Alabama head coach Nick Saban before the first half of the Southeastern Conference championship football game on Dec. 4, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Monday night’s national championship game is the maraschino cherry atop the sundae of post-season college football. The nation’s highest-paid government employee — coach Nick Saban, $9.75 million — will lead the University of Alabama’s student-athletes against their counterparts from the University of Georgia. They are coached by Kirby Smart, whose salary ($7.13 million) ranks only fifth among Southeastern Conference coaches, but is 40 times larger than that of Georgia’s governor.

The game will be watched by perhaps 20 million potential purchasers of beer and trucks and other stuff that corporations pay broadcast entities to advertise. ESPN reportedly pays about $470 million annually under a 12-year, $5.64 billion agreement for the right to broadcast major postseason games.

There always are, however, solemn warnings that the appeal of high-revenue college sports — football and basketball — is jeopardized by any departures from the “revered tradition of amateurism in college sports.” Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens wrote those words in a 1984 case that came from the University of Oklahoma. (One of OU’s wittier presidents, when a state legislator asked why the school needed more money, answered, “I would like to build a university of which the football team would be proud.”) The 1984 court weakened the NCAA’s grip on schools’ football television arrangements, but the court’s rhetoric strengthened the lucrative myth that sustains the business model of the academia-entertainment complex: Amateurism is beautiful, so don’t pay the talent.

Andrew Perloff, writing in Education Next, says “student athlete” entered academia’s lexicon in 1957 when a widow lost a claim for workmen’s compensation death benefits from Fort Lewis A&M College for fatal injuries her husband suffered playing football. The school said the player was not an employee because the school was not in the “football business.” The NCAA adopted the “student athlete” mantra, but Perloff says: “Between long daily practices, ongoing physical conditioning, and cross-country travel, playing on a team can stand in for a full-time job.”

What to know about the College Football Playoff championship game

The supposedly precious aura of amateurism is supposedly imperiled by new rules that allow those who make $9 million coaches possible — the players — to earn a comparative pittance. Last summer, the NCAA (2019 athletics revenue: $18.9 billion), having uneasily watched more than two dozen states pass laws to give college athletes some rights to market themselves, faced this fact of federalism: Schools in states where athletes cannot be punished for monetizing their fame will have an advantage in recruiting blue-chip prospects.

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So, welcome to the NIL era: Increasingly, an athlete can earn money from his or her name, image and likeness. A few football and basketball players will benefit a lot; volleyball and field hockey players not so much. Gender disparities will energize the “equity” police. And what boosters used to do by passing cash under the table can now be done on the top of the table, which might be progress, of sorts. But if you graft a multibillion industry onto higher education, some awkwardness is unavoidable.

In most states, the highest-paid government employee is a state university football or basketball coach. Louisiana State University recently gave its (now-former) football coach Ed Orgeron — he won the national championship game just two years ago — a $16.9 million severance payment to go away. (This was less than the $21.45 million Auburn paid in order to fire coach Gus Malzahn in 2020.) Orgeron’s replacement, Brian Kelly, was lured from Notre Dame by a contract worth $9 million per year, plus a $500,000 “longevity” bonus every July. Plus $500,000 if LSU wins half of its regular-season games: Inflation has lifted the price of mediocrity.

The Post's View: For the NCAA, the real madness isn’t in March

In 2018, Georgia spent $2.6 million recruiting players. Given the likely return — in money, and in prestige, which has monetary value — from getting the Bulldogs into Monday night’s game, this was a good investment. As is Saban’s compensation, which is scheduled to soon pass $10 million per year.

Schools increasingly compete for customers, a.k.a. students, by emphasizing the college “experience.” This is enhanced by decreasing academic demands: There is less studying — Education Next reports that students spent 27 hours a week on studies in 2003, down from 40 hours in the 1960s — and more grade inflation. In “The Debt Trap: How Student Loans Became a National Catastrophe,” the Wall Street Journal’s Josh Mitchell reports that one school’s experience includes “amenities like a state-of-the-art recreation center with a climbing wall and a ‘lazy river’ pool complex with a 30-foot water slide. … A campus dining hall served steak cooked to order.” Which school? Roll Tide!

What you need to read about college football

Scores | Rankings | Standings | Stats

Conference shakeup: The ground beneath college sports took its most disfiguring shake to date as Southern California and UCLA announced they are leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.

Jerry Brewer: As college sports change, coaches must stop whining and amplify new voices.

Name, image and likeness: As NIL money keeps rising for players, coaches like Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban are lobbing accusations at each other while most Americans are still enjoying college sports, a Post-UMD poll finds. The NCAA has issued guidelines for schools, but boosters like Miami’s John Ruiz aren’t worried.

USC’s fever dream: At the Trojans’ spring game, minds long addled with college football might struggle to remember where all of the players and coaches used to be.

Season wrap-up: College football can’t ruin the magic of college football, no matter how hard it tries.

Barry Svrluga: Kirby Smart finally vanquished Nick Saban, and now college football feels different.

John Feinstein: Don’t underestimate Deion Sanders — and don’t take your eyes off him.