Athletic mercenaries


I have been a college football fan all my life. I have been a professional football fan to a lesser degree. But, to a native Southerner, football at the major college level has always reigned supreme.

As I once informed someone from the frigid North, “There are two major religions in the South: The Southern Baptist Church and major college football. And the Southern Baptists are fortunate that football is played on Saturday and not Sunday.”

From 1869 until the last half of the 20th Century, the South was still in shambles and poverty as a result of the War Between the States, the collapse of an agrarian culture, and the so-called “Reconstruction” that followed. Southern pride had been crushed.

In those early days Yale, Harvard, and Princeton won the most national college football championships and other northern and midwestern teams won their share as well. Finally, in 1908, Louisiana State University was the first Southern college to win a national championship. Georgia Tech was the next in 1917.

Alabama won two in 1925 and 1926 and Georgia Tech won another in 1928. Southerners took notice and pride began to be resurrected.

For those in the South, a Georgia Tech, LSU, or Alabama win was a win for the entire region. At least in this venue, the South was competitive again.

Eventually, the Southern universities became dominant with 16 of the last 18 national champions being from Southern universities (if you count Texas, which was a Confederate state, so, yeah, they count).

Within the South itself, these universities came to represent entire states as in Tennessee vs. Florida or South Carolina vs. North Carolina. Within some states, side were chosen, such as Alabama vs. Auburn or Georgia vs. Georgia Tech.

When Johnson City, Tennessee high school standout and high school All-American quarterback Steve Spurrier opted to play for Florida rather than Tennessee, many considered him a traitor to the homeland. Such is the love and power of major college football in the South.

Alas, that may be changing, and, for me, it has already changed. The current transfer portal system and the NIL have changed college football and will likely ruin it, according to many sports experts.

Last bowl season Florida State dealt with about 30 players opting out of the Orange Bowl against two-time defending champion Georgia. (Why they were allowed to sit on the sidelines, while the other players were trying their best is beyond me).

The Seminoles, led by third-string quarterback Brock Glenn, didn’t stand a chance, losing to the Bulldogs 63-3, the worst loss in FSU history. The selfishness of the 30 players who were more concerned about their careers in the NFL than about their teammates and the university that gave them the opportunity disgusted even die-hard FSU fans.

The situation was repeated in other bowl games and the transfer portal, and the NIL is said to have been a major factor in the retirement of legendary Alabama coach Nick Saban, although Saban denied it.

The fact remains that a player recruited to a major university may leave after that initial season for a better financial offer and could even play for multiple teams in his short career.

Southern fans, who are often rabid in their support for their favorite team, are loyal, and have come to expect loyalty from their players. But, like the pros, the play being called seems to be, “Show me the money.”

To me, the players who have this attitude at the expense of the university and fans are now simply mercenaries with their only loyalty being to the organization that offers the opportunity to make the most money.

These “athletic mercenaries” and their universities have lost my loyalty. During the coming season, I intend to turn my attention to the local high schools and nearby smaller colleges who haven’t gotten caught up in this scheme.

Southerners have long since regained their prosperity and their pride and the absolute need to depend on college athletes to make us feel better about ourselves has long since passed. The University of West Georgia has fielded several good teams. They play Samford in Carrollton on August 31. Go Wolves!

[David Epps is the Rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King ( Worship services are on Sundays at 10:00 a.m. and on livestream at He is the bishop of the Diocese of the Mid-South ( He has been a weekly opinion columnist for The Citizen for over 27 years. He may be contacted at]


  1. All the commenters raise salient issues. Revenue-generating college sports are a business, and in a country operating under a capitalistic economic system, money will find its way to reward those who are most talented – players and coaches. I assume that this has always gone on, but today the schools, coaches, and players can be more open about it.

    If you wish to see amateurs play for the love of the game, Father Epps has the right idea. Go to Division II and III games or to non-revenue sports at almost any college. If you want to see the most gifted 18 – 22 year-olds play revenue-generating sports, welcome to the professional D-league posing as students at your favorite college. This is about money, not glory, so please don’t expect anyone to risk injury to win one for the Gipper.

  2. I view college football along with a few additional athletic programs within schools these days as going the way of the Olympic Games, in that it is no longer a sport of just amateur athletes competing. However will it change college football as we know it, especially here in the south? I strongly doubt it since numerous star athletes were already getting “compensated” by boosters and the like while many athletes on these respective teams were not. Now all athletes have an opportunity (no guarantees) to be rightfully paid or compensated for the mass revenues that they generate for the school and/or on a personal level with outside business / marketing ventures.

    No what’s going to change college football going forward David is the expanded playoff system that you advocated for, for several years now. No longer four teams to determine the champion in a playoff format; it is now twelve teams, meaning a 2-3-loss team is probably still in play for the playoffs if you’re a blue blood type program. And no longer is every Saturday game a must win for your team to get there. Do I care if Tennessee beats Georgia in Athens in November this year? Well yes and no, just so long as the Dawgs are playing deep into December and through the holidays.

    And are the winners of in-season clashes like Oregon vs Ohio St, Georgia vs Texas crucial as once thought to be? Not really they are “less crucial” games now just like all NFL games are throughout the season. Oh, and as you exit for smaller time programs through the season (nothing wrong with that!), we’ll remember to leave the light on for you for big time football when you return.

  3. Busy Bee, much of what you say is true and the wages being paid to coaches at major programs is hard to stomach in light of the cost for college tuition but that’s a discussion for another day. I will say that professional sports are not going to draft unproven players so as we all know, the college ranks become a farm team system. You comment about the players risking career ending injuries, but how else are they to prove themselves? Shall the pro teams just take their word that they’re really really good? I don’t think so. My point is that, the poor, poor suffering, college athletes get as well as they give. This is a problem that has been brewing for several decades, and it will be interesting to see how it all works itself out. Perhaps universities should focus more on being academic institutes?

    • “Perhaps universities should focus more on being academic institutes?”

      Ever since I was a student at Georgia Tech decades ago I’ve thought that universities should focus on being academic institutions and separate themselves from big $$ sports. License the school name and mascot to a true professional farm league, like AAA baseball or a developmental league in European soccer and let the athletes be pros in every sense. Those who wish to take their earnings and pay for tuition would be welcome to do so. But stop the pretense of “student athletes”.

      Non-revenue sports could function as club sports. My husband was in the water polo club at UGA back in the day and they competed against other universities. But he wasn’t on an athletic scholarship and did it for the fun of competition while focusing on earning his degree.

  4. Reverend Epps, you are critical of college athletes having a “show me the money” attitude.

    I would point out that in most states, the highest paid state employee is usually the head football coach. Case in point – Kirby Smart, who now earns $13 million per year with the possibility of bonuses of up to $1.55 million per year. Nick Saban was paid $11.1 million per year in 2023 before he retired. Dabo Sweeney at Clemson is being paid $$10.8 million per year.

    As to the transfer portal – again the coaches have always been free to depart for a better job and frequently do, leaving the players that they recruited and the fans disappointed. Recent example – Jim Harbaugh, who left Michigan for the NFL’s LA Chargers and $16 million per year. Also (basketball, not football) Dan Hurley of Connecticut who flirted with a $70 million package with the NBA Lakers and eventually turned it down after Connecticut offered him a huge pay raise to stay on.

    Can you blame the athletes, who risk career-ending injury and are actually the reason that all of the money is floating around in those sports in the first place, for wanting to be compensated for doing so? Or for wanting the same ability to change schools as their coaches?

    I agree that money is a problem in college sports. But I don’t agree that the athletes are to blame.