Georgia’s Kirby Smart: Recruiting decisions shouldn’t come down to ‘highest bidder’

Georgia Bulldog Coach Kirby Smart waves to fans during the Dawg Walk as part of the team’s celebration parade in Athens, Georgia on January 15th, 2022.(Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Georgia Bulldog Coach Kirby Smart waves to fans during the Dawg Walk as part of the team’s celebration parade in Athens, Georgia on January 15th, 2022.(Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nathan Posner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATHENS – The SEC spring meetings get under way May 31 in Destin, Fla. Meeting organizers might want to erect a boxing ring in the lobby of the Sandestin Hilton.

Alabama’s Nick Saban and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher will be there and attending a 5½-hour head football coaches meeting that is scheduled to start at lunchtime the first day. If Fisher’s comments the past 24 hours are any indication, he and Saban could well come to blows during that meeting.

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Fisher’s comments about the Crimson Tide’s 16-year head coach qualify as fighting words in most places in the South. Fisher called Saban a “despicable narcissist” and actually said the Alabama coach should be slapped for all his “lying and cheating.”

Of course, it’s Fisher who was slapped with a six-month show-cause order from the NCAA in the summer of 2020 because he “failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance because of his personal involvement in recruiting violations” and “failed to monitor his staff.” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey publicly reprimanded both coaches Thursday afternoon for violating conference policies regarding decorum.

The central issue is name, image and likeness, or “NIL.” the NCAA’s Board of Directors voted in the summer of 2021 to approve an interim NIL policy that permits all NCAA athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness. The allows athletes to utilize “professional services providers” to broker NIL activities for them.

But that ruling resulted in some unintended consequences. By the end of the 2021 football, alumni and donors of schools began forming “collectives.” NIL collectives are business entities that supporters of a school’s athletic teams – and not the schools themselves – have formed to generate and pool revenue to fund NIL opportunities for athletes who opt-in.

Georgia has one. It’s called Classic City Collective. It’s overseen and managed by former UGA compliance administrator Matt Hibbs and seeks to be “the nation’s foremost supporter-funded NIL facilitation platform to position Georgia athletics and athletes from all 21 sports for sustained success,” according to its website.

Apparently, they have some catching up to do to reach Texas A&M’s level. Unabashedly named “The Fund,” the Aggies’ collective reportedly doled out $30 million to signees in A&M’s No. 1-ranked recruiting class.

Fisher doesn’t necessarily deny it. Even in his remarks Thursday, he said only that his program has “not broken any Texas laws.” He adamantly contends “we’re not cheating.” Technically, they are.

The NCAA last month issued a clarification that NIL compensation promises offered as inducements still violate long-standing NCAA bylaws that prohibit contact between boosters and recruits. “Guidelines” were issued that theoretically provide NCAA enforcement the impetus to investigate potential violations of such rules. “It is effective immediately,” the NCAA said.

UGA President Jere Morehead, the chairman of the NCAA board of directors, said the NCAA “may pursue the most outrageous violations that were clearly contrary to the interim policy adopted last summer” and that he “expects all Division I institutions to follow our recruiting rules and operate within these reasonable expectations.”

The problem is the NCAA’s power has been weakened by state laws and a reduced enforcement staff.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart thus far has remained silent on the verbal sparring of his SEC peers. However, he weighed in on NIL in an appearance on the “Paul Finebaum Show” on the SEC Network last week.

“I just want to make sure that the game stays at a point where we can control it,” said Smart, who worked for Saban for 10 years at Alabama and with the Miami Dolphins. “I’m all for the players. We’ve had a lot of players getting opportunities with name, image, likeness. I would just like it where a decision isn’t based on where ‘I’m going to the highest bidder.’ If we could control that some kind of way, it would be much better.”

Control, at the moment, is nowhere to be found.

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