The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Those NCAA doomsday scenarios about NIL? Instead, it’s proven to be a cleanser.

Brigham Young's walk-on football players received an entire year's worth of tuition from a Utah protein bar company. (Mark Brown/Getty Images)

If it disconcerts you to see Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei pitching Dr Pepper on the first big college football Saturday, well, it’s better than the old surreptitious cash handshake. An important shift has happened: Players aren’t getting bought; they’re asking you to buy. And doesn’t that feel better for everyone?

Change is not invariably bad, and the legal change that allows college athletes to profit from their own name, image and likeness (NIL) will not crumble stadiums. Despite the NCAA’s scarifying prediction that it would lead to the immediate death of autumn, the season is coming on. As the ground gets firmer in the cold, tailgaters will enjoy the warming delights of bourbon outdoors before noon and stadium crowds will bob in their warring colors as they issue their guttural incantations, as they ever have. On the field, the players will be as fervent as they ever were, lusting for success, trying on stardom but still young and rehearsing for adulthood.

The NIL market is in its early days, but it’s safe to say almost nothing has gone as the naysayers threatened. Despite all the vertigo over NCAA rule book upheavals, the money is not changing college sports for the worse. Rather, there are some positive signs, a couple of them even wondrous. Such as this one: Brigham Young’s walk-ons got their entire yearly tuition paid for by a Utah protein bar company.

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The doomsday scenario preached by shortsighted NCAA officials was that NIL would be ruinous. It would disillusion a public in love with “amateurism,” poison team chemistry, tank smaller schools and leave obscure athletes and minor sports unfunded while a handful of NFL-bound stars in power conferences commandeered megadeals. The exact opposite has happened. Brands are showing strong attraction to all kinds of aspirational kids you never heard of, in all kinds of surprising and pleasant places.

A Jackson State defensive lineman named Antwan Owens will get some financial support from a hair care company. Arkansas wide receiver Trey Knox and his beloved husky, Blue, popular on social media, have a deal with PetSmart. The deodorant company Degree has signed up 14 athletes with inspiring backstories, many of whom you have never heard of, for a “#BreakingLimits” campaign. And Marshall offensive lineman Will Ulmer is getting paid to play his guitar onstage.

Fact is, NIL reform is proving to be a cleanser. The demise of the NCAA’s mean-spirited, clench-fisted “amateurism” has removed a false note. The money was always there. It was just dark and dirtied, under the table, restricted or concentrated unfairly in the wrong hands. Small market schools are discovering they have new leverage, thanks to local businesses that want associations with relatable athletes who may not be future NFL stars but who have strong community or social media appeal.

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“It’s more of an authentic universe they’re living in,” says Adam Holt, senior vice president of FanAI, a platform that helps brands assess the impact of their sports sponsorships. “And that resonates.”

Leverage is shifting, and as it does, it’s getting clearer all the time how fallacious the NCAA’s arguments were, conjured by unimaginative men in loafers to keep themselves rich and kids poor, fearful of losing a revenue stream they had illegally poached. For one thing, NIL may well give role players an unforeseen but huge earning power, observes marketing analyst Tony Pace, a former chief brand officer for Subway and now president of the Marketing Accountability Standards Board.

“Where social media is democratizing is that you can have an offensive lineman or a safety or a special teams ace, or what if you’re the 12th man at Texas A&M who’s not necessarily the star player but is somebody who will get a heck of a lot of attention,” Pace says. “In all of those categories, college students are really a wonderful group of high performance and high-profile succeeders who are really great from a brand ambassador and influencer standpoint. We’re probably all underestimating the size of the market to be honest. Who wouldn’t want to work with them, right?”

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Similarly, Pace predicts NIL will float so-called minor sports on a whole new and higher tide of promotion and sponsorship, judging by corporate interest in athletes such as Fresno State basketball players Haley and Hanna Cavinder and LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, who is reported to have endorsements worth more than $1 million. “The macro effect of lots more communication happening with college athletes is that people will pay more attention,” Pace says. “ … People will say, ‘Wow that’s an interesting player.' There are people that burst on the scene. Those stories are why we love sports. Not only do you want to see the ‘next’ girl or guy, you want to see the surprising one.”

Some tawdry behavior or unreckoned-on ills will also come with NIL deals, undoubtedly. One side effect may be some restless commercial seeking by star players. Another may be a rush to leave high school prematurely. Ohio State star quarterback recruit Quinn Ewers enrolled early to take advantage of NIL agreements said to be worth $1.4 million. Yet these trends don’t have to be wholly unhealthy — and market forces may curb them. Every coach just got a ton more leverage, and a roster spot just got a whole lot more precious. There is every motive for Ewers to make his grades, stay eligible and mature. You mess up, you get benched, you have blown your worth.

Pace observes, “If I’ve got a decision where I can go pro or I can stay in school and get better and make money because of NIL, wouldn’t I stay longer? And isn’t that going to help interest in the sport? I think it is.”

Perhaps the biggest fallacy of all is that NIL rights would turn every star player into a mercenary, thus cornering talent in the already-rich programs and ruining the game’s identity. This is a profoundly insulting misreading of the hearts of athletes and of who and what makes great teams. Eight starters on the Super Bowl-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers were rated two stars or less as high school prospects.

College football’s identity can never really be threatened by the players — only by the loafers who are the real mercenaries, with their endless quest to cut out small schools and get bigger payouts via realignment. There will always be an uneasy but necessary balance between games collegians play and the commerce that pays for them. But it’s the players who provide the real value — they and the folks who show up to grill hot dogs in cold weather to holler for them.

College football wasn’t invented in a C-suite, and it won’t die there. It’s about as organic an endeavor as we have — and its appeal is enduring. Your campus will always be the place that ignites your mind and stirs your senses and coaxes you to drink down to the dregs, where we all ditch our alacrity and cynicism and go hurrying into blazing enthusiasms. You can’t take that away from the game day experience, no matter how much money you drown it in.

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