Players’ money demands part of deal for Georgia’s Kirby Smart, SEC football coaches

A tight-lipped Georgia coach Kirby Smart listens to a question from a reporter during a 15-minute news conference Tuesday, may 28, 2024, at the SEC Spring Meetings at the Sandestin Hilton Beach and Resort in Miramar Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chip Towers/

Credit: Chip Towers

Credit: Chip Towers

A tight-lipped Georgia coach Kirby Smart listens to a question from a reporter during a 15-minute news conference Tuesday, may 28, 2024, at the SEC Spring Meetings at the Sandestin Hilton Beach and Resort in Miramar Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chip Towers/

MIRAMAR BEACH, Fla. — Paying players to come play football for your school has been done for decades, really since college athletics have existed. But that always had been under the table.

Until now. It has taken more than a century for actual numbers to come into the light. And even now, as the SEC and Power Five conference programs begin to deal with the reality of lawsuit settlements and revenue-sharing models for the future, there is little discernment between what is fact versus myth or mere speculation.

Slowly but surely, though, the truth is starting to come into focus. Schools are paying athletes real money to play ball for good, ol’ State U. As it is, prospects are being promised to earn certain amounts via name, image and likeness agreements through their respective collective groups. Soon, though, because of successful lawsuits filed against the NCAA and its power-conference membership, they truly may be playing for pay.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart arrived at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Resort on Tuesday to participate in the annual SEC Spring Meetings and try to get a handle on what the recent settlement will mean for his and the other SEC football programs. But for two years now, a portion of his job as the Bulldogs’ head coach has been to act as a de facto general manager, overseeing the distribution of money between 85 scholarship players and a couple of dozen walk-ons.

Smart was asked by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday how much of his regular workload is devoted to player compensation.

“Ten percent probably,” Smart said as he walked from a hotel lobby to an area of conference rooms to join the SEC’s 15 other football head coaches for an all-afternoon meeting. “It went from zero three years ago to where it is now. But there are so many other issues we’re dealing with now. We actually don’t deal with (compensation) as much as you’d think. Once they get there, they’re on what they’re on, and I’m not dealing with it anymore.”

If the numbers are true that are being discussed in a lawsuit involving one of this quarterbacks, then SEC coaches are managing tens of millions of dollars. Jaden Rashada, who recently arrived at UGA as a transfer from Arizona State, is suing Florida and coach Billy Napier for $10 million in damages.

The federal lawsuit also names a prominent Gators booster and the administrator for one of the schools’ now-defunct collectives designed to raise money to distribute to Florida athletes via NIL arrangements. The basis of the legal action is “fraud” and “unethical and illegal behavior,” according to Rashada’s attorney, Rusty Hardin of Hardin and Associates of Houston. Hardin told the AJC that Napier agreed to pay Rashada $13.85 million over four years to sign with the Gators, then $1 million when that deal fell through.

Eventually, Rashada was released from his Florida scholarship. He ended up signing with Arizona State under no NIL agreements, according to Hardin. Rashada started three games for the Sun Devils last year in an injury-shortened freshman season. He arrived this week at UGA for summer workouts without any NIL promises, Hardin said.

Speaking on Rashada’s situation for the first time Tuesday, Smart said Rashada told him the day before the news broke that he planned to sue Napier and the Gators.

“I told him that would be between his family and his attorneys,” Smart said during a 15-minute news conference with reporters covering the SEC meetings. “I’m not involved in it; Georgia’s not involved in it in any way.”

Asked how he felt about a player suing a coach over broken monetary promises, Smart just shrugged.

“It’s a sign of the times possibly,” he said. “I don’t get really caught up in that. I worry about what’s in my little bubble at Georgia. That’s outside of the bubble for me, so I don’t really know.”

Currently, UGA claims that the amount of NIL money that it distributes to its athletes is protected by federal privacy laws designed for students’ academic information. Increasingly, numbers are shared anecdotally and especially within the recruiting community. The website attempts to keep an accounting of individuals and teams on its “NIL Deal Tracker” page.

There it is reported that senior quarterback Carson Beck is the Bulldogs’ top earner, with an NIL valuation of $1.6 million. That’s considerably below the $4 million mark that initially was being reported on recruiting sites shortly after Beck announced he was returning to UGA for a fifth season of college football.

While neither of those figures currently have been made public, Beck quite publicly acquired a $300,000 Lamborghini from an Atlanta dealership earlier this year and is driving that vehicle around Athens. Georgia running back Trevor Etienne, who transferred to UGA from Florida in January, was pulled over in March driving a 2024 Audi R7, which retails for about $150,000.

So, clearly at least some Bulldogs are being well-compensated beyond academic scholarships, room, board and meals. And they’re all about to receive a pay increase. The recent deal the NCAA and Power Five conferences struck to settle the House v. NCAA and two other lawsuits calls for the schools to come it with $2.7 billion over the next 10 years to compensate former and current athletes for missed NIL opportunities.

Whatever current athletes receive, it will be over and above what they already get. That includes cost-of-attendance allowances of more than $4,000 a year and Alston Grants, valued at $5,980 annually.

As SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey pointed out Monday, “there’s no better time to be a college athlete than right now.”

Georgia, which has won two national championships in eight years under Smart and aims to win more, vows to stay competitive no matter what the landscape is. In the case of Rashada, the Bulldogs needed a fourth quarterback on their roster after Brock Vandagriff left for Kentucky via the transfer portal.

Rashada was the best quarterback available to them. His history with Florida, Smart said, played no part in it.

“Jaden is a good football player,” said Smart, available to discuss the rising sophomore for the first time. “We knew Jaden when he was coming out. He’s got a good body of work. ... Which is really critical at the quarterback position. He’s actually played it, and he’s very talented. We’re happy he’s joining us and looking forward to working with him.”

In the meantime, the SEC and other power conferences have to figure out how to pay for everything. At the moment, revenue sharing is the expected solution. That’s not a problem for football and men’s basketball, sports that bring in major revenue via TV broadcast rights.

It’s more problematic when adhering to Title IX requirements that call for equitable treatment among genders and sports. Among the solutions being discussed in the meeting rooms here at the Sandestin Hilton are reduced scholarship limits and roster caps that might exclude walk-ons.

“Well, I think that’s why we’re here, right, to try and figure that out,” Smart said. “I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of speculation and a lot of narratives out there that are loose and that may not be true. We’re here to figure that out. I’m not completely up to date and educated completely on where it is. I do feel strongly that roster spots are important and that walk-ons are important. Where that falls, that’s what we’re here to decide.”

Whatever the outcome, Smart does not plan to spend more time dealing with money and playing general manager than he already does.

“It’s almost like a salary cap,” Smart told the AJC. “You don’t deal with it all year; you deal with it when you deal with it. It’s not eating up more of my time. I’d say more of my time is spent fundraising.”

As for the amount of money it might require, Smart is at a loss.

“I don’t have the answer to that,” he said. “All I can tell you is how much time I spend dealing with it, and that’s only about 10 percent.”