BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Nick Saban spent part of Tuesday morning cheerfully handing out talking toy ducks to children with cancer, posing for pictures and generally showing his softer side.
Next up is a business trip to Washington to help the Southeastern Conference make the pitch for federal regulation of how college athletes can make money off their fame. It’s the most nationally significant trip of the week for the Alabama coach, if not the most personally meaningful for the grandfather of a 9-year-old and 3-year-old.
The SEC is scheduled to host a reception for lawmakers and congressional staffers Wednesday night before meetings with individual representatives and senators from the 11 states in the conference’s footprint.
College sports leaders are seeking help from Congress in managing name, image and likeness compensation. The NCAA lifted its ban on athletes being paid endorsers in 2021.
“I think that the whole idea is, we want to provide information based on our experience, so that maybe people that are involved in the House and Senate both sort of have an idea of what the issues really are and how it can impact and affect college football in the future,” Saban told The Associated Press in an interview after the event organized by Aflac at Children’s Hospital.
Saban, who has won six national championships at Alabama since 2009, reiterated his contention that the system doesn’t work the same for everybody with such a wide disparity of NIL benefits available at different schools.
“I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but I think if we can get more people aware of what the issues are for them to have input on how we can sort of create a model that would help create some competitive balance but still give people opportunities to use their name, image and likeness to earn, I think, will be a good thing,” Saban said.
And that’s the reason behind the trip to Washington with SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey and other coaches and officials from within the league.
“With states having different laws, I think the only way is to have some federal legislation that controls and makes it the same for everybody,” Saban said.
But before flying out to Washington on Wednesday morning, Saban and wife Terry had a different agenda.
The Aflac pitch man presented one of the company’s plush, mechanical ducks to each child at the end of a scavenger hunt, offering them the chance to name it and explaining how to make them talk by rubbing under the wings. In between, he found himself fiddling with the ducks and appearing relaxed for a coach known more for his scowling intensity than his kid-friendly demeanor.
“I like the thing myself. I wouldn’t mind having one myself,” he said, smiling. “You just rub it and it makes little sounds and it makes you feel good. I kind of like that. Sometimes when we’re not stopping them on third down, or we’re having trouble on third down, I might need this thing on the sidelines.”
Aflac President Virgil Miller said the company has donated more than 23,000 of the ducks to children with cancer and sickle cell in the United States, Japan and Northern Ireland since 2018.
Saban is a believer in their benefits.
“There is an emotional, psychological effect that this little guy has,” he said. “There’s no doubt. Especially on the kids that are old enough to realize, over 3, I think, they kind of get it. I enjoyed the ones that really got it and got a big smile on their face and it lifted their day.
“When you walked in this room today, a lot of these kids had a really tough look on their face. And when they left today, they had a big smile on their face.”
Terry Saban, the more outgoing half of the couple, enjoyed seeing the other side of her husband on display in public.
“I think us having our grandchildren really brought out the softer side of Nick,” Terry Saban said. “To see him on the floor playing with the babies, it really changes who you are. And then to see these children who are having a really tough time, you can’t help but be heartbroken when they come in and then be happy for them when they leave, that maybe you did just one little thing to brighten their day.
“It’s fun to see Nick interact with the children and laugh with them and tickle the duck. It was a great day.”
Just don’t expect to see that side of him on the sideline.