It began just after the stroke of midnight, as soon as legally possible. College athletes took pickaxes and hammers to the antiquated NCAA bylaws, performing a jubilant demolition like East Germans at the Berlin Wall in 1989. They tore down that amateurism wall, and in the process began deconstructing establishmentarian fears of what’s coming next.
Name, image and likeness (NIL) rule changes will make the rich richer, the establishment said. This will help only the Alabamas, Clemsons and Ohio States of college football. It will help only the North Carolinas, Dukes and Kentuckys of college basketball.
And then, at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, Jackson State football player Antwan Owens signed an endorsement contract with a hair-care product. Some of his teammates signed deals with the same company, as well. Yes, there were plenty of deals for higher-profile players at bigger programs—podcast sponsorships, merchandise deals, gaming companies, appearance fees and a sweet tea endorsement for the Auburn quarterback. But NIL rules won’t simply make the rich richer; it will make the niche richer. The athletes with specialty interests—including those at historically Black colleges and universities—are in line to cash in.
NIL will be the death knell for Olympic sports, they said. More money funneling to football and men’s basketball players, even less money to athletes in sports that already are seen as a revenue drain on athletic departments.
And then the marketable athlete of the moment became LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne, she of the 3.9 million TikTok followers and 1.1 million on Instagram. Speculation was running strong this week that she would be the first college sports millionaire of the new era. Nothing has been formalized or announced as of Thursday morning, but her time is coming and the payday will be massive—perhaps bigger than any other currently enrolled college athlete.
She is likely to have a lot of Olympic sports company among collegians cashing in on social media followings. The Big Ten Network put out an interesting graphic Wednesday listing the biggest Instagram followings among current athletes in the conference—a list topped by Minnesota wrestler Gable Stevenson (245,000 followers). After that was a Penn State male gymnast and a Penn State wrestler. An Iowa wrestler and a Nebraska women’s volleyball player also were in the top 10. There were just three football players (Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and Ohio State receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson) and two men’s basketball benchwarmers (Adrien Nunez of Michigan and Meechie Johnson of Ohio State).
NIL will be yet another province of male athletes, they said. This will perpetuate—and perhaps even widen—the gender gap in college sports. If you think the NCAA favors men’s championships over women’s, wait until you see what endorsers think.
And then the Cavinder twins had their say. Haley and Hanna, members of the Fresno State women’s basketball team, announced a deal in Times Square on Thursday with Boost Mobile and earlier in the day released news of an agreement with Six Star Pro Nutrition. Although terms were not announced, those agreements are expected to pay them well beyond what many of their male peers are making. If two Mountain West Conference athletes can make that kind of money, what’s to stop dozens of other women from cashing in?
Other breakthroughs, both large and small, are happening across the country. A succession of state laws combined with a virtual NCAA surrender have turned this into a revolution that is a century in the making and yet abrupt in its impact. It is a bit disorienting to go from so many rules for so many years prohibiting so many money-making opportunities to an essential absence of rules all at once.
It’s a heady new day, all right. NCAA violations assuredly are being committed right and left, even after the lifting of many restrictions, but we have progressed into the Ask Forgiveness, Not Permission, Stage. The college athletics world will not crumble because of NIL, all warnings to the contrary. We’re in a better place on July 1 than we were on June 30.
We’re also not in a place where athletic merit is the sole driver of compensation. This isn’t all about sports.
Dunne, the LSU gymnast, was not a member of the 24-woman all-Southeastern Conference team. After battling injuries, she played a small role as the Tigers advanced to the NCAA championship semifinals. So why is her following several million strong? Because she works at cultivating the following—and because she has successfully accentuated her conventional attractiveness, one of countless people who have leveraged Instagram as a beauty platform.
Brandis Heffner of CollegeGymNews.com says gymnasts are especially popular on TikTok because of the acrobatic nature of their sport, but also their knowledge of choreography and how to pose. “They know how to pick that up,” Heffner says. Dunne is among the most prominent examples.
Then there are the Cavinder twins, each of whom have more than 250,000 Instagram followers. They are good basketball players: Haley was the Mountain West Player of the Year in 2021, and Hanna was a first-team all-conference selection as well. But they played on a fourth-place team from a mid-major conference that did not make the NCAA tournament, and they were not Associated Press All-Americas. They do, however, dribble and dance in unison on TikTok and YouTube; they’re fashionable dressers; and they also check most of the boxes of conventional societal attractiveness.
This also cuts across gender lines. Nunez, the Michigan men’s basketball player, scored six points this season for the Wolverines but has a huge social media following built largely around fashion poses, dance moves and other nonathletic content.
So are these NIL paydays an advancement of successful college athletes, or are they an advancement of photogenic people who happen to be college athletes? The latter isn’t a bad thing, per se, but for women who have tried for ages to gain respect for their athletic ability, it raises the question of whether the path to riches still is paved more cleanly for those who pose best for the camera.
Muffet McGraw, retired Notre Dame basketball coach, is not initially concerned. “Women are pretty good on social media, and now they can get paid for that,” she says. “If you can find a way to make a million dollars for selling what you’ve got, do it.”
Debbie Yow, retired athletic director at three schools (most recently North Carolina State) and before that a basketball coach at three schools, agrees with McGraw. “Don’t you think that was inevitable?” asks Yow. “I can’t get too exercised over it. You see women in commercials—do you see any who aren’t attractive? I think you’re going to get a mix, get both. When you hit on an athlete who is physically attractive and athletically gifted, it’s going to be insane.”
(Yow did note that the person asking her these questions works for a sports media outlet that has an annual swimsuit issue, which primarily features supermodels and not athletes. Point well taken.)
Connecticut guard Paige Bueckers probably qualifies as the most athletically gifted player in college basketball. She has an Instagram feed that is hoop-centric, leaving the glamour content to others, but it still draws a huge audience: Bueckers checks in with a whopping 829,000 followers. She stands to cash in big based primarily on basketball prowess.
“Paige is more basketball, and that’s kind of cool to see that she can do something with that,” McGraw says.
The hope is that a rising tide lifts all boats—that there is room in the NIL space for college athletes of all varieties to be recognized and valued. “I do believe we’re going to get there,” Yow says.
As we hit warp speed into NIL World, the very fact that some of the early winners come from places like Jackson State and Fresno State and nonrevenue sports defeats some of the doomsayers. There is enough money for many different types of college athletes, and it will not lead to the ruination of the entire enterprise. Tear down that ancient NCAA wall, and let’s see what’s on the other side. We just might like it.
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