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Texas A&M runner’s water bottle company causes NCAA kerfuffle

Ryan Trahan let out a heavy sigh before he started speaking.

“I was hoping I wouldn’t have to make this video,” the Texas A&M cross-country runner said in a YouTube post before revealing he had some “some pretty bad news.”

Late last week, a compliance officer from the university informed the 17-year-old freshman that a reusable water bottle company Trahan launched in high school led the NCAA to find him ineligible to compete. The issue wasn’t that Trahan continued running the company as a student-athlete. He also promoted the business, Neptune Bottles, using his social media accounts — most prominently his popular YouTube channel, on which he also identified himself as a member of the Aggies’ cross-country and track teams.

“Student-athletes can own and run their own business without violating NCAA rules if it’s not based on their athletics reputation or ability,” the NCAA tweeted Thursday regarding Trahan’s situation.

The revelation devastated Trahan, who worried on video he posted Wednesday that he’d be forced to give up either his business or his college running career. On Friday, he learned it wouldn’t come to that: The NCAA granted Trahan a waiver that allows him to remain eligible and run his company, as long as he does both in isolation.

Declining to comment, the NCAA referred all communication about Trahan’s situation to Texas A&M.

“The NCAA granted a waiver that will allow Ryan to continue the use of his name, picture and videos to promote his personal business, provided he does not use or reference his participation in intercollegiate athletics or his status as a student-athlete at Texas A&M,” the Aggies announced Friday in a statement. “Further, Ryan may continue to operate personal social media accounts independent of his business social media account(s) documenting his personal activities which may include his participation as a collegiate runner.”

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“What they’re requiring me to do is basically create two separate aliases online,” Trahan told the Post on Friday, shortly after getting word that he’ll be cleared to compete as soon as this weekend.

“I can keep my YouTube channel,” he continued, speaking of his current account, which has more than 14,500 subscribers, but he’ll no longer be posting anything about Texas A&M there. For that, he said, he’ll create a new channel.

“It’s is a compromise, but it isn’t as detrimental as I expected it to be,” he said of the decision, adding, “I still don’t think the rules are right and correct.”

What caused trouble for Trahan, who finished in eighth place in his first college cross-country meet while running unattached, were NCAA bylaws and, which prohibit student-athletes from accepting “any pay for promoting a commercial product or service or allow your name or picture to be used for promoting a commercial product or service.”

The stipulations are largely associated with preventing amateur athletes from signing sponsorship deals with multimillion-dollar companies. But because the area is so murky, it can extend down to situations like Trahan’s, who likened his business, which he started as a high school senior with his best friend, Caden Wiese, to a passion project.

“We worked our butts off on [Neptune Bottles],” Trahan said of the creation of the company, which he said earned $50,000 in revenue in the year since its creation. Today, he puts in about 15 to 20 hours of weekly work on it, he said.

In his Wednesday video, Trahan compared what he was doing to holding a more typical part-time job, challenging NCAA officials to establish a difference.

“I don’t understand how I’m allowed to have a job working at McDonald’s or something while being a student-athlete, but I can’t have a company that I’m passionate about,” he said. “It just baffles my mind the way the NCAA runs things.”

That bafflement remained Friday, despite his situation being resolved.

“I think college athletes in 2017, they should have the ability to promote their own business,” he said, noting many schools and colleges encourage students to engage in entrepreneurial ventures. Texas A&M’s Mays Business School even runs its own incubator, Startup Aggieland, where students can apply for rent-free offices.

While Trahan still sees a place for NCAA stipulations regarding endorsements, he said there’s enough manpower at the organization to enforce it on a case-by-case basis, so that he and others like him can continue to pursue their entrepreneurial interests.

“I think there could be a solution there,” he said, adding he hopes something will change in the next four years that might allow him to reunite his passions again. If not, he said, he’ll do what he needs to do to remain eligible to run.

“I’ll definitely be in contact with the compliance office,” he said.

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