Colorado football's massive roster purge sucks, actually:
It's risky on the field...and even worse off the field.
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
Colorado football is going to look very different next season.
Our friends over at The Athletic tried to put the team’s absolutely massive roster turnover in the Deion Sanders era in context. As of Monday of this week, more than 40 players from Colorado’s roster have hit the transfer portal, with additional reporting suggesting that most of those players are not leaving by choice. As of this writing, Colorado is looking at replacing over sixty players from last year’s program.
We’re obviously early in the transfer portal era, but this type of roster change is unprecedented. Several programs took in double digit transfers last year, but adding more than ten would be considered a lot. Some of those teams, like USC and Texas, were pretty successful on the field. Others, like Miami and Nebraska, were not.
The most successful programs mostly used the portal to fill in roster gaps, building around a pre-existing group of strong players. Colorado, one of the worst teams in college football last season, doesn’t have that luxury. This coaching staff has apparently decided there are barely any players worth keeping, so they’re going to try and turn over almost the entire dang roster.
I talked to a few of my national reporter friends this week, and the consensus I’ve been hearing from folks who know ball in a way that I don’t is that this approach has some significant on-the-field risks. There simply isn’t enough established portal talent out there to completely rebuild the offensive and defensive lines for a P5 program, and the few impact linemen that are in the portal…are, uh, going to be very expensive.
Maybe Colorado is going to bring in twenty more five-star kids that none of us know about. But as of right this second, it appears that this football team probably isn’t going to be very good next season. It will need to build a completely new culture and chemistry across a roster that will have less time together than their opponents. It will probably have less depth than their opponents. They will be relying heavily on players that have very little experience against P5 competition, and they’ll be facing a very tough schedule.
And because Sanders has been so public about his desire to run off most of the roster, he and his staff will have to grapple with how those decisions will be perceived on the recruiting trail, especially if the team struggles out of the gate. If future athletes believe that the Colorado staff will treat them as disposable, transactional pieces…like say, pieces of furniture…they’ll approach their relationship to Colorado that way. Coach Prime or not, the Buffs do not have the NIL payroll to paper over poisoned relationships with big checks. They’re going to need to win.
Running off this many players might still be the best short-term decision, on the field. After all, Colorado was terrible, and Sanders isn’t being paid to oversee a multi-year turnaround.
But beyond the on-the-field risks to burning down a roster, there are some very significant off-the-field ones.
This entire philosophy runs counter to the spirit of the rules and to what the NCAA is still trying to argue in court
As best as I can tell, Colorado football isn’t technically breaking any rules here by cutting players. Anybody who is told they won’t have a spot with Colorado football anymore is still reportedly being given the chance to remain at Colorado as a regular ol’ student, with their scholarship honored.
In 2014, the Pac-12, along with other schools, announced a slew of new policies, meant to signal a more athlete-friendly direction. Those policies included four-year scholarship guarantees, stating:
According to the Pac-12's new rules, all athletic scholarships will be guaranteed for four years and "can neither be reduced nor canceled provided the student-athlete remains in good standing and meets his/her terms of the agreement." In addition, financial aid agreements offered to incoming athletes will be "for no less than four academic years" beginning in the 2015-16 academic year.
Part of the reason the Pac-12 (and Big Ten) updated these policies was specifically to curtail the running off of athletes for athletic reasons. This is back when concerns about ‘oversigning’ were a major news story. Pac-12 leaders wanted their programs to at least aspire to something different.
The behavior at Colorado very clearly runs counter to the spirit of that policy, if not the letter. It’s especially notable given that Washington State AD Pat Chun, just a few weeks ago, cited the possibility that athletes could be fired for poor athletic performance as a reason why Congress should make sure college athletes aren’t considered employees.
Washington State AD Pat Chun, speaking at the hearing, says athletes becoming employees would cause “irreparable damage” to college sports and the notion "that an athlete could be fired for underperformance" goes against the educational mission.
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger)
Mar 29, 2023
Look. Colorado just fired a ton of athletes for athletic underperformance. The current system did nothing to protect them.
Because Colorado is being so public and so dang blatant about this, I think the odds that news coverage of this roster transition ends up in a future congressional hearing are roughly 100%. This is exhibit A, B and C for a future lawmaker to point to why athletes need legal protections to either enshine their scholarship status or to grant collective bargaining powers.
Good news for Colorado in the short term. Bad news for the NCAA in the long term.
Beyond inviting additional legislative scrutiny and potentially damaging future recruiting relationships…I personally think this is a really lousy thing to do.
I saw Andy Staples, a writer I really like, argue in The Athletic that this is an acceptable trade off in the NIL era. If athletes are going to be given the power to earn money for their “likeness'“ and transfer at will, then coaches ought to be allowed to expect a certain level of athletic performance.
I strongly disagree with this thinking. Athletes did not earn NIL rights as part of a protracted negotiation with management, and now should be expected to make some sort of concessions. They earned those rights because the NCAA continues to claim in court that athletes are students, and should be treated as regular students. Regular students enjoy almost unlimited NIL rights, and can transfer whenever they want to any school that will accept them.
If a regular student is attending a school on a math scholarship and he goes to class, stays out of trouble and does everything he is supposed to do, the school wouldn’t be able to say, “sorry, a Rhodes Scholar just left Yale and we have only room for one of you, so you’re out of the program.” Nobody takes away your key to the music practice rooms if an underclassman beats you out and becomes first chair trombone in the orchestra.
The environment where this sort of thing can and does happen is the workplace and everybody participating in a workplace is entitled to certain and specific protections that college athletes do not have. Even here at Colorado, we’re looking at the power imbalance between staffers making a half million dollars (who are going out of their way to make it harder for you to find a new landing spot), and dozens of athletes who probably aren’t P5 players who maybe might earn 10k in NIL money? Maybe?
That’s not a fair fight!
If you want to tell a judge that a football player is a student, but that his ability to keep his scholarship, housing stipend and academic support is only dependent on his athletic performance then he’s clearly not a student. He’s an athlete who happens to eat dorm food.
Maybe this works out for Colorado. But even if it does, I don’t think this level of cutthroat roster management is worth celebrating.
You want to treat everything like a business? Fine. But in business, people get contracts, severance, and the ability to file unfair labor practice complaints.
In college football, you get passive aggressive tweets.
Here’s what else we wrote this week:
I spent a lot of time down at Coastal Carolina last weekend. I wrote a story about how CCU, and peer schools, still think they can compete for national titles in baseball without SEC-TV money.
I also wrote about the unique way CCU is able to pay for new buildings and facility upgrades, why things like in-state tuition swaps matter a lot in recruiting, and how you sell your athletic program to a fanbase that is super old.
And finally, I filed a FOIA to see if Ohio State fans actually are more likely to pee on random Evanston lawns after Wildcat football games. Is it a stupid post? Yes, but I promise it actually gets to an important issue in the NIMBY battle around the new Ryan Field.
You can help pay for my road trips, FOIA fees, and crippling addiction to Diet Coke by subscribing to Extra Points, or supporting or ad partners.
Thanks for reading. I’m headed down to Rosemont now to meet the new Big Ten commissioner, and will have a few more reported stories next week.
I’ll see you on the internet.
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