Kaiden Smith is a senior at Appalachian State University and a strong safety on the school’s football team.
For a college athlete like me, this year has been anything but normal. Some differences are obvious to anyone watching on TV: the lack of fan attendance, the wearing of masks, and even social distancing on some sidelines.
But there are also behind-the-scenes changes, like the differences in how we meet, travel and eat team dinners before our games; the frequent COVID testing; our drastically altered academic schedules; and the constant reality of having your next game cancelled or postponed at any given moment.
All of this uncertainty won’t end with the season, either. Because of the unusual circumstances surrounding the pandemic, the NCAA has decided to grant athletes another year of eligibility, which as a graduating senior has left me at an interesting crossroads. There’s a laundry list of factors influencing my decision to leave or stay for another year, with the most interesting being the era of name, image and likeness (NIL) rights that will begin next year for college athletes, and the opportunities this will present.
Because of current NCAA rules, I can’t use my status as an athlete to make money endorsing products, nor can I monetize my publicity using social media. If Sportico tried to pay me for this column, I couldn’t accept it. But with NIL rights, that will change, making college players more like the professional athletes my age—people such as U.S. soccer stars Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, and even cheerleaders at the University of Oklahoma—who can profit off their fame.
When people think of NIL, they think of the big-name college athletes like Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence starring in Gatorade commercials or signing a contract with Nike. But what does NIL mean to an athlete like me? I’m a safety at a mid-major FBS program who is less like Lawrence—a guaranteed millionaire when he turns pro—and more like the 99% of college athletes who exit the arena and move on to the working world after college.
Thankfully for me and most college athletes, there’s a local market and fan base to tap into for revenue. My teammates and I may never be on a commercial during a CBS primetime football game, but we will be able to make a few bucks advertising and working with local businesses (restaurants, car dealerships, sporting goods stores, etc.…) in our college town.
But this only scratches the surface of the possibilities presented by NIL. One of the most fascinating and potentially lucrative aspects of this ruling will impact athletes like myself who are content creators.
I regularly publish articles and produce my own podcast, which has me wondering: Would the NIL ruling allow me to profit off of this content I already produce through sponsorships, advertising, donations or paid subscriptions?
One of the fastest growing and popular aspects of sports media is exclusive, behind-the-scenes content, which is in heavy demand and has been popularized by a multitude of programs like HBO’s Hard Knocks or Netlfix’s Last Chance U or QB1: Beyond the Lights. One of my own teammates already makes documentary films about athletes and publishes them free of charge. Would he be allowed to tap into this market for exclusive content and earn money?
The opportunities in content creation for college athletes are endless. They could profit from an insider YouTube vlog, a live video game stream on Twitch, or even by creating and producing their own music.
Each locker room across the nation has journalism majors like me, and those majoring in other fields like public relations, advertising, video production and many more that equip them with the skills and understanding to take advantage of NIL rights.
I predict that over time college athletes will realize how much power and influence they have through NIL, giving them a lot of leverage in the near future. This could create some problems if it’s not regulated properly. For example, what if athletes decide to not do media interviews or the personal story segments seen on sports networks, knowing that they could do the same thing independently or with their own teammates—and profit from it?
Naturally, the NCAA’s ultimate NIL rules will also trickle down and impact high-school athletes, particularly top recruits in sports like basketball and football. Bronny James has 5.8 million followers on Instagram as a high-school basketball player: Is it in the NCAA’s jurisdiction to regulate how he utilizes his platform financially before he is a part of the college athletics family? There are many questions that will need to be answered regarding high-school athletics surrounding NIL regarding matters like recruiting, working with agents, eligibility and more.
As time passes collegiate athletes will come to realize how in demand they are, which will force the NCAA to work cohesively with athletes to find some sort of balance. The NCAA cannot limit the creativity of college athletes just because they can suddenly profit from it, but the NCAA leaders likely will not want these students running media businesses that could potentially work against them.
Whether I decide to move on from college sports or stay one more year, it will be interesting to see how the first year and future years of NIL unfold. Change is coming soon, as college athletes across the nation will soon start cashing out on a payday that has been long overdue.
Smith is majoring in Communication, Journalism, and is a strong safety on the football team that won four consecutive Sun Belt Conference championships. He is also a senior sports reporter for his student newspaper, The Appalachian, and co-hosts The 135 Podcast with teammate Thomas Hennigan, available on Apple and Spotify.