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.)
Where the Crimson Tide’s Green Goes