The Whirlwind of Changes NIL Brought to an SEC Student-Athlete
When you hear “NIL”, one immediately thinks of recent events: Name, Image and Likeness being on capitol hill, big football or basketball deals, or recruits coming out of high school placing more emphasis on future income possibilities rather than their sport. However, no one speaks about how changes brought about affected the sports-teams that never made the headlines.
Having been a Division I athlete at a prestigious SEC school during the time NIL was first discussed in late 2019 and early 2020, passed in June of 2020, and furthermore executed in the following years, I had seen quite a few changes the legislation brought about, accompanying varying opinions (both positive and negative) from the roughly twenty sports teams the university was home to.
I was a women’s soccer player. Did I think NIL was going to affect me? Absolutely not, but that was okay, I wasn’t shocked. Now, working for an NIL company called Basepath, I am able to reflect on my personal experience while also assisting current student-athletes manage their NIL finances, along with building their personal brand on social media.
The Beginning Conversations Surrounding NIL: Covid-19 and Other Worries
A typical conversation around the year of 2020 for a student-athlete at an SEC school went something like this, “Hey, have you heard about NIL?” with the next person answering to some degree “We will see what happens”. In all seriousness, no one thought the concept of Name, Image and Likeness was going to erupt the way in which it did.
As a student-athlete, the academic year of 2020-2021 brought its own challenges that were far more important than whether or not a legislative bill was being passed. This was the first year back from the Covid-19 pandemic that swept the globe and turned college sports on its head. During this time back to campus, specifically at the SEC institution I was attending, we were getting tested for covid at least three times a week, and if anyone in your “close circle” (mainly roommates or teammates) tested positive then you got quarantined due to close contact. Our weight training, practices and games were all subject to change due to pending tests results. Therefore, safe to say, we could care less about an NIL deal when we weren’t even sure how many games we were going to play.
Thankfully, we got a relatively “normal” season in, “normal” meaning coming off the field after running and immediately putting on a face mask, not being able to have a full team in the same locker room due to having to be 6-feet apart, and members of the team being quarantined every other week.
During NIL: Educational Meetings and NOT Supporting NIL
The academic year of 2021-2022, where do I begin? Name, image and likeness (NIL) was officially passed. Being a soccer player and at this moment in time, NIL was only surrounding basketball and the school’s quarterback: What type of deals was he going to get? How much money was he being offered? Are female athletes going to get any deals?
The athletic department picked up on these growing questions and decided to initiate two mandatory educational meetings for all team members about NIL. At these meetings, we – as athletes having been a part of discussion of NIL being passed to now being passed and a part of our careers – weren’t sure what to expect. We were provided a brief education about 1099 taxes, however we were also told we didn’t have to worry about it unless we were bringing in a substantial sum of money, along with how to carry yourself as a business professional, use of social media, and to be careful about your image. At the time, there were maybe only around 10-20 NIL deals known around the country, it was the beginning stages. There were very small examples the department could’ve shown us to go off of.
Following the meeting, we were told about a marketplace that we could join that would provide NIL deals and business opportunities for student athletes, now commonly known as INFLCR. Sounded like a great opportunity! However, there was no education on how to use the app, how we could brand ourselves moving forward with it or even really profit from NIL. As a women’s soccer player at this time, I was being offered $50 max to post a picture about caffeinated gum, with very little to no other opportunities. This wasn’t worth it to me and further played into the idea of NIL being a waste.
I was twenty-one years old, juggling physical therapy, practices and academics. Thankfully I had a scholarship that paid for the majority of my education, had access to some of the top facilities in the country, had free dining available, money to use outside of facility-run dining, and had my rent paid for. Why did I need more? Why were we as student-athletes starting to get greedy? I didn’t understand the concept fully, as the only people accepting deals left and right were our quarterback. I was against NIL.
It was, and still is, very interesting to me that grown men were caring about what was happening on our college campuses more than the athletes themselves. Why did I need to have someone telling me we deserved money? I grew up dreaming about the day I could play college soccer, through all my recruiting trips and tournaments scanning the sidelines for college coaches. I got to play at my dream SEC school, wearing the colors with all my pride. This wasn’t a job to me and I most definitely was not being forced into doing so. Earning income for being an athlete seemed so silly because of everything we were already provided.
At the beginning of NIL, and having the narrative of it only truly affecting the top male athletes around the country, I believed NIL was just another news story – a topic that men wanted to keep ranting on, even though they are twenty years outside of college wanting to relive their dream in which they may or may not have lived: they didn’t understand. I thought NIL was all about the glitz and the glam, and was feeding into the narrative of athletes being out of touch with reality. However, it took months for me to start seeing the good in which people can do with their NIL opportunities.
At the time, being labeled as an “influencer” was a very niche thing that really only started when Tik Tok blew up over the Covid-19 time frame, compared to present day 2023 where the top NIL earning individuals are all influencers on Tik Tok Instagram and Twitter. The majority of athletes were turning away from being an influencer, me included.
A few athletes started making money from car dealerships, fast food chains, jersey apparel and more, again not resonating with who I was as a person. Like I said, it took months to start seeing the true good coming out of NIL. Then, I started to see female athletes create small businesses for the little girls that follow them, such as Leanne Wong, a gymnast at The University of Florida and Olympian, making bows to match leotards with her primary audience being young and dreamful gymnasts and Trinity Thomas, University of Florida gymnast alum, back-to-back Honda Sport Award winner and SEC female athlete of the year, creating “Sparkle & Shine”, a competition open to young and aspiring gymnasts with a portion of proceeds benefiting The Trinity Thomas Foundation.
I noticed athletes getting involved with charitable organizations, going to local elementary schools and conducting camps and lessons for young athletes of their specific sports. THIS was the NIL I was supporting.
Post College: Working for an NIL company and Multiple Sports Making Money
Now being post-grad and working for an NIL operations software company, I am able to look back at all the chaos NIL brought, including the beginning stages that most people wouldn’t know unless they were an athlete during this time, and compare it to what I see now and gather from my friends who are still student-athletes.
Top-earning NIL individuals are opposite of what was believed to be initially. At my specific SEC institution, the top earners are primarily gymnasts who take advantage of social media and volleyball players connecting with their fan base. Soccer players are working with the local collective on getting T-shirts and hoodies sold with their name and jersey number on the back of it. Baseball and softball players are fully involved in the NIL space. Football, being the forefront of all NIL discussions, remains racking in NIL deals left and right.
During my time in college, the football players truly took NIL and ran with it, but not all for the best. As a student-athlete, and seeing all sports teams every day in dining, study hall, and classes, you start to pick up on what matters most to them. During the academic year of 2021-2022 the football team cared more about bringing in money then they did about putting up a 8-0 record in conference play. It was baffling to see players complain about the deal amounts they were being offered rather than putting in extra time to improve as a player. Comparing the football team in which I knew my junior year to what I knew my senior year and present time, NIL being settled and further relaxed (in a way) has allowed individuals to get back to who they want to be, since the truth of what NIL can bring is well past just the glitz and glamor and the hype has fallen.
A big improvement I have seen that was not there during my college experience is there are now NIL directors helping to facilitate career and personal development, providing resources and educational opportunities for student-athletes as conversations surrounding name, image and likeness continue to grow in number. Athletes are now provided with an abundance of resources they need to fulfill their NIL responsibilities and have NIL experts to answer any questions they may face, a very different world than what thousands of athletes faced in the academic year of 2021-2022.
Working for an NIL company and being provided the opportunity to give back to athletes, even in the most miniscule manner, is the most rewarding career. I am able to use my experience at a top SEC school and turn it into guidance, not just for athletes but also for myself. There continues to be legislature discussion surrounding NIL and college athletics but what people oftentimes forget is it has never been about the money for student-athletes. It has only ever been about achieving that dream of playing our sport that we woke up at age 5 and decided was our passion. It’s an honor to wear a school badge on a uniform, regardless of how much NIL money I make.