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The NIL Game: A New Day for Collegiate Athletes

Take a look at new NCAA name, image, and likeness guidelines and how BYU is coaching athletes to compete on the NIL playing field.

Like many people her age, Shaylee Gonzales thought it would be fun to post YouTube videos documenting her vacations and good times while she was in high school. When TikTok, the short-form video app, hit the United States, Gonzales found a whole new way to have fun and share her creativity: through snappy dance and basketball videos. And people responded—first following her accounts by thousands and eventually by hundreds of thousands.

Gonzales’s social media following was boosted by her success on the court once she joined the BYU women’s basketball team. During 2018–19, as a freshman, Gonzales led the Cougars in scoring, helped BYU win a West Coast Conference title, and was named to the All-Conference First Team. Although a torn ACL caused her to miss the next season, in 2020–21 she stepped right back in, earning the title of West Coast Conference Co-Player of the Year. This season, she averaged a career-best 18 points per game and led the Cougars to their highest ranking in program history.

But while most other social media personalities were getting paid for their views, Gonzales and her fellow collegiate athletes around the country were not. The reason? The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the governing body for most of American college athletics, had proclaimed “amateurism” as the law of the land. Article 12 in the NCAA bylaws forbade college athletes to earn “such compensation . . . for value or utility that the student-athlete may have for the employer because of the publicity, reputation, fame, or personal following that he or she has obtained because of athletics ability” or “to advertise, recommend, or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind.”

In summary, the NCAA prohibited Gonzales and other student-athletes from using their name, image, or likeness (NIL) to make money. Violations of this rule would lead to penalties such as player suspension, loss of NCAA eligibility, and sanctions against the offender’s university.

So despite amassing more than 420,000 followers across her social media channels, Gonzales couldn’t collect a cent. She also couldn’t sign with an organization to create branded content despite having companies constantly reaching out to partner with her.

That all changed on July 1, 2021, when after more than 100 years of amateurism, the NCAA begrudgingly agreed to let collegiate athletes profit off of NIL—changing the game for Gonzales, her fellow BYU athletes, and every college athletic department in the nation.

Shaylee Gonzales

Life Before

To understand the magnitude of the wave that has crashed over collegiate athletics, let’s take a brief look at the fight over paying student-athletes, which has been going on for more than a century.

Since the first college football game took place between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869, the popularity of intercollegiate athletics has swept across the country. As a result, the coin of the realm for universities has become, well, coins. As money poured in from spectators, schools sought to entice top athletes to compete for them—and then kept a large share of the profit for themselves. In line with the money-driven tactics of early collegiate sports, bribes were offered to players, and massive stadiums were built, including the 70,000-seat Yale Bowl in 1914.

In 1906, as various accusations of cheating escalated, the NCAA was created to regulate college sports and to codify regulations behind athletic activities at universities. From the start, the NCAA preached amateurism, ostensibly to maintain the high-brow ideal that college students play merely for the love of sport and should be held distinct from professionals.

At first the NCAA went so far as to prevent universities from offering athletic scholarships, but in 1950 students were finally allowed to receive financial awards based solely on athletic ability. These awards typically included money for tuition, room, board, fees, and required books.

Not only were universities regulated in what they could offer, but student-athletes were also prevented from financially benefiting in any way from their status as athletes. In fact, even the term student-athlete was half a public-relations ploy, half a legal term to avoid paying collegiate athletes. After Ray Dennison died from a head injury in 1955 while playing college football at Fort Lewis A&M (now Fort Lewis College), his wife filed for workers’ compensation death benefits. In response, the NCAA coined the term student-athlete to support the idea that these were students merely engaging in an extracurricular activity. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed, as have other courts over the ensuing decades.

Meanwhile, as college students trained and competed, coaches’ salaries climbed, ticket sales grew, and universities became famous (or infamous) both for their academic reputations and also for how well their athletic teams performed.

But the real kicker came in the Supreme Court case NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. Prior to this ruling, radio and television rights fees added to university coffers, but the NCAA regulated how often universities’ football games would be shown on television each season. A group of universities rebelled against this rule in 1984, filing a suit claiming the NCAA’s actions were a restraint of trade. The Supreme Court agreed.

As a result, television now provides the bulk of revenue for the NCAA, collegiate athletic conferences, and university athletics. For example, in 2021 media rights for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament totaled about $850 million, and by 2025 that number is projected to reach $1 billion. The Southeastern Conference (SEC), one of the top football conferences in the nation, signed a deal with ABC in 2020 in which the company will pay the conference and its members $300 million a year for ABC to become the exclusive home of SEC football and men’s basketball. This deal is on top of an additional contract that gives ABC the rights to air more than 1,900 SEC games each year on ESPN and the SEC Network. Even more incredibly, those contracts will likely be reworked for increased value when Oklahoma and Texas join the conference sometime in the next few years.

The surge in broadcast revenue led to athletic departments reporting revenues of $14.4 billion to the US Department of Education in 2019, a figure almost triple the $4.9 billion reported in 2004.

Such high cash flow could not be ignored, especially when paired with stories of students scrimping by to pay for meals and stories of the NCAA’s heavy-handedness in punishing rule breakers. In 2014, for example, Georgia running back and future NFL Pro Bowl player Todd Gurley was suspended by the NCAA for four games because he received $3,000 in exchange for signing autographs on memorabilia.

A New Age

As college athletics became a multibillion-dollar business, universities could still only offer athletes tuition, books, and room and board. And between the NCAA regulating athletes’ ability to make money and the high demands placed on athletes, many students went hungry or worked graveyard shifts to make ends meet. While typical students try to fit work in between classes and studying, much of that free time for athletes is taken up with practices, meetings, and travel, leaving little time to earn cash. And if student-athletes aren’t receiving scholarship help, their situation is even worse.

Thanks in large part to an increasing drumbeat from fans, the media, and the athletes themselves claiming that the NCAA, universities, coaches, and others were all reaping huge financial gains from college athletics while the athletes themselves received comparatively nothing, the NCAA leadership council finally allowed universities to expand the benefits given to their athletes. Scholarships could now include funds that met the federal definition of cost of attendance established at each school. This decision allowed more money to be provided to help cover additional academic expenses outside of tuition, fees, and books, including transportation. Universities were allowed to provide more meals and snacks as well.

Emboldened but not satisfied, advocates pressed on. Finally, a one-two punch knocked out the NCAA’s stranglehold on athletes’ name, image, and likeness. The first jab came in September 2019 when California passed legislation prohibiting its colleges and universities from punishing athletes who accepted endorsement money. Other states quickly followed suit.

Then on June 21, 2020, the knock out punch came when the United States Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous 9–0 decision that NCAA restrictions on “education-related benefits” violated antitrust law. In the majority decision, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, “Nowhere else in America can businesses get away with agreeing not to pay their workers a fair market rate on the theory that their product is defined by not paying their workers a fair market rate. . . . The NCAA is not above the law.” While the decision did not directly deal with NIL, the NCAA could see which way the ball was rolling.

Just nine days later, on June 30, 2020, the NCAA adopted a temporary rule change allowing NIL activity with minimal guidelines. The next day, student-athletes were signing on the dotted line.

NIL at BYU

For Gonzales, the change opened an array of opportunities. With the help of her business-minded parents, she picked up deals with companies such as Mountain America Credit Union and vintage clothing store Thrifthood, the latter of which capitalizes on her long-held love of fashion.

“When I heard they were going to change the rule, I was super excited because I had built that following and could make some good money from it,” she says. “As college athletes, we don’t have time for jobs, so doing social media is a great way to make extra money.”

Indeed, one video featuring Gonzales and her teammates dancing—punctuated with a dunk by center Sara Hamson—has garnered upward of 5 million views. Another video from the early stages of the pandemic featuring women’s basketball assistant coach Ray Stewart collected more than 700,000 views.

“We’re in such a unique position as college athletes,” Gonzales says. “People love to see behind the scenes to know what you’re doing. And a lot of people feel connected—when they turn around and watch the games, they love my team too.”

“Shaylee has such a phenomenal following, and now she can maximize her potential,” says Gary Veron, BYU’s associate athletic director for student-athlete experience. “It alleviates a lot of financial stress and makes her feel better about being at BYU. She benefits BYU, and BYU benefits her. We enhance our brand, and she gets what she deserves.”

The speedy demise of the NCAA’s NIL restrictions has created a mess of a response by schools. With guidance from the NCAA at a minimum, schools’ main guidelines have come from state law, and every state is different from the others. In fact, Utah is one of a few states to have no NIL law whatsoever. Due to this disorganization, student-athletes have often been left to fend for themselves while schools have tried to sort through the chaos.

BYU, however, was ready for this change. Months before NIL rules were relaxed, Veron, BYU football coach Kalani Sitake, and other members of the football staff had discussed at length ways they could bring in and develop their players—not just on the field but in every phase of life. Ultimately, they decided to establish a new program. They called it Built4Life.

Built4Life

According to the program’s website, “Built4Life is a program designed to support student-athletes in developing critical life skills, facilitating appropriate professional engagement, making classroom success directly relevant to future opportunities, and preparing them for life beyond college athletics, all while they have opportunities to monetize their own name, image, and likeness. Built4Life is a comprehensive development program focused through four main pillars: Learn, Brand, Work, and Love.”

Built4Life started slowly, and it initially included only football players in the spring of 2021. However, by the time the Supreme Court announced its decision and the NCAA dropped its regulations two weeks later, all BYU student-athletes had valuable resources and a place to turn for help.

“We want to help our student-athletes be their best selves by maximizing their time at BYU so they can achieve their goals hereafter,” Veron says. “They collect classroom and real-world experiences, develop hard and soft skills, become financially literate, and get connected with the brightest entrepreneurs in the valley.”

Veron and his office staff help ensure that all NIL deals signed by BYU athletes are compliant with NCAA and BYU regulations and are mutually beneficial to both sides. But Veron’s team also strives to provide student-athletes with a gamut of resources, such as how to start a nonprofit, how to file taxes, and how to take advantage of the Utah economy, which US News & World Report ranks the best in the nation.

“I think the reason why [Built4Life] has taken off in popularity is that it does encompass NIL, but in my mind that’s just a piece of the pie,” Veron says. “We could still accomplish 85 percent of what Built4Life is all about even if you take out NIL.”

To help facilitate their vision to provide as much support as possible for BYU athletes, representatives from the athletic department approached BYU Marriott School of Business dean Brigitte Madrian and received her blessing to start a new course for student-athletes. The class is cotaught by Veron and David Hart, BYU’s faculty athletic representative and an associate professor in the Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics at BYU Marriott. Hart says the course is “an executive lecture series on steroids.”

In the class, student-athletes hear from top industry leaders, develop a personal brand plan, and participate in service activities. The course teaches entrepreneurial concepts, explores case studies, and features insights from business leaders, including Derek Miller, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance and an MPA alum, and Blake Modersitzki, general partner at Pelion Venture Partners and a member of the BYU Marriott National Advisory Council.

“What we’re trying to accomplish is about your personal brand,” Hart says. “For example, you’re a student-athlete and have people approaching you and asking you to hashtag and this and that. You’ve now altered your social media presence. Is that who you want to represent? Is that how you want to portray yourself to the world professionally?

“At the same time, your personal brand is much more than what you’re going to hashtag,” he continues. “We want these student-athletes to think more carefully about what all of that means put together. Getting them to think about what their brand is now and what that means for the long term is really what the class is about.”

Lessons That Last

Tyler Batty, a BYU football defensive lineman, has used Built4Life’s resources to sign multiple endorsement deals and also to learn how to start his own nonprofit.

Batty grew up helping his parents raise and care for horses in Payson, Utah. He saw how riding and being around animals helped young people with physical and mental limitations to find increased joy and comfort. Taking some of the money from his NIL deals, Batty started Edward’s Hands, named after Edward Lamb, a young man with autism who has worked with Batty using equine therapy and who is the son of BYU football assistant head coach Ed Lamb.

Tyler Batty

Batty says, “I sat down with Gary Veron and Billy Nixon [director of player experience and equipment operations] and started talking about nonprofit and what we could do with it. This past summer we decided to file for nonprofit status just to make equine therapy more accessible for people who may not know about it or may not have the money. A lot of places that do equine therapy charge, and it’s not cheap.”

Edward’s Hands helps feed and take care of 15–20 horses and pays for riding equipment and other essential expenses. And through hard work and careful budgeting, Batty still has some NIL funds left over to provide for his family.

“The summer is a thin time—from May to August you’re scraping together what jobs you can while training and keeping your spot on the team,” Batty says. “The other part of the year you’re working a part-time job, saving, paying taxes on your scholarship, and taking classes. It was really tricky to balance for a lot of guys, even more so for walk-ons [nonscholarship athletes]. We’ll still work summer jobs and jobs during the season to pay for our expenses, but NIL has given guys some breathing room. Fans should be excited; it should only elevate the level of play as we have more time to prepare.”

Batty’s teammate BYU quarterback Jaren Hall has opted to take a careful approach when it comes to endorsements, signing an initial deal with Elevate Chiropractic and then partnering with only a few other organizations. Instead of seeing big money now, Hall is looking into investing and explains that he and his teammates are grateful for the education they’re getting to be set up for the future.

Jaren Hall

“A lot of guys on our team are starting to get interested in the stock market, cryptocurrency, and real estate, but these things require money to get into,” Hall says. “I think a lot of guys see this as an opportunity to not only take care of their families but also to prepare for their futures. I think that’s the biggest draw for a lot of us.”

And while starters on the football team may get much of the attention, BYU has broken ground nationally in showing how NIL opportunities can do more than make the rich richer. A deal with Provo-based Built Bar will provide nonscholarship football players with enough money to cover tuition in exchange for promotion of its products, and an agreement with SmartyStreets gives every female student-athlete at BYU the chance to earn up to $6,000 a year to highlight the company on social media and make appearances at events.

Time will tell how the nationwide NIL market will shake out. Some predict college NIL deals could be worth $1 billion annually. With NIL deals, some companies will find value in them, and some won’t. Some college athletes will likely make thousands, others only enough to cover a few expenses. But for athletes at BYU, Built4Life will be there to help student-athletes with whatever their branding and financial goals may be.

“I think BYU was already ahead of the game, and now they not only offer opportunities through NIL, but they’re doing it for everybody,” Hall says. “It speaks to the BYU network and how people care. And it will only get better. We’re grateful—my family feels blessed, and I know other student-athletes feel the same. BYU has done well taking it on and making everyone feel like there’s an opportunity for them.”

_

Written by Jordan Christiansen
Photography by BYU Photo

About the Author
Jordan Christiansen is the marketing communications manager at Crucial Learning after stints at BYU with BYU Marriott and the athletic department. As a BYU and University of Oklahoma alum, he’s ready for the Cougars’ Big 12 era to begin. Christiansen lives in Mapleton, Utah, with his wife, Natalie, and their five children.

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