Tennessee football and NIL: Nick Saban, Kirby Smart whine; Josh Heupel takes responsibility

Jul 21, 2022; Atlanta, GA, USA; The Tennessee Volunteers head coach Josh Heupel talks to the media on the stage during SEC Media Days at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 21, 2022; Atlanta, GA, USA; The Tennessee Volunteers head coach Josh Heupel talks to the media on the stage during SEC Media Days at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports /

Name, image and likeness continues to scare lots of high profile coaches. Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide and Kirby Smart of the Georgia Bulldogs have asked for standards pretending to care about players. Tennessee football head coach Josh Heupel took another approach: personal responsibility.

At SEC Media Days this past week, Smart suggested a cap on the amount of NIL money players can make. His fake reasoning was to imply young kids can’t handle that amount of money, noting that he wouldn’t have been able to handle what’s being offered as a freshman.

Saban, meanwhile, has at least been a bit more honest by complaining about what it does in recruiting, but he still pretends it’s all about player interest. However, when Tennessee football’s head coach was asked about concern for the players in his SEC Media Days press conference, he talked about what the programs themselves should do.

"“I think it’s extremely important that you have a great culture inside of your locker room, that you have strong leadership, that you’re able to have an open dialogue, be transparent and be honest with them as you see things maybe that are coming up as an issue or things that they’re struggling with, educating and empowering them, giving them an opportunity to have their voice heard, and to be real with them.”"

After that quote, Heupel then went on the SEC Network set, as everybody who took the podium at SEC Media Days did. He was once again asked about NIL deals and if there should be anything done to regulate it, but once again, rather than whine, he touted the way it empowers the players.

"“I don’t know if I have a magic potion to change NIL at this point. I do think it’s important. It’s an opportunity that changes the course of lives for our student-athletes. Empowering and educating them, that’s important. Some kind of guardrail as far as overall being able to do that. You look at the NFL, they have a symposium for all new players that come into the NFL, educate those guys and make sure they have on the ground level helping them handle it the right way.”"

See this Nick Saban and Kirby Smart? This is how you show you’re concerned about players. You acknowledge some guardrails should be up but not any that just so happen to help the program or your salary. Also, the focus should be more than ever about how the players are empowered.

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Of course, Saban and Smart will now pretend that NIL is a good thing for players, but before the Supreme Court ruling last summer, when did Saban take a stance on players getting paid throughout his illustrious 20-year career? He never did.

Now, with schools like Tennessee football bringing some competition to him and Smart, he’s legitimately worried about what NIL will do to his recruiting. Perhaps he has to, I don’t know, actually coach up some players now while being on an even playing field.

However, why not accept some responsibility yourself for once? Your own program has its own NIL initiatives just like every other program. If something involved with the collective harms the players, isn’t that a reflection on you and not the system in general?

He may only be entering his fifth year as a head coach and his second with the Vols, but Heupel seems to understand that. It’s embarrassing that the defending national championship head coach and the most successful coach in the history of the sport can’t understand that.

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All of this shows why Tennessee football is approaching the NIL the right way. They aren’t worried about limiting player pay, and they may be a bit more brazen with how they use it. However, they have an initiative and a portal for players to take advantage, so their No. 1 concern is helping out the players, not appeasing Saban or Smart.