The New NIL Rules Are Here To Stay. But At What Cost?

* Northern Arizona's Nico Young is among the most followed collegiate distance runners on social media

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

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"The idea is that we just don't want it to consume our lives to the point where we're not focusing on running anymore and we're focusing on social media." -- Nico Young, NAU

By Sheridan Wilbur - MileSplit Correspondent

This summer, college athletes have been released into a world where they can make money off their Name, Image and Likeness.

This new wrinkle in the NCAA, otherwise now known as NIL, creates a clear incentive for football and basketball signees -- who sometimes enter college as bonafide stars -- to stay in college rather than go pro. An incoming University of Alabama freshman quarterback, for instance, has already signed close to $1 million in NIL deals before even lining up for the Crimson Tide.

But what about non-revenue sports and its athletes? NIL also cracks a door open for Division I, Division II and Division III track and field athletes to earn some cash for their influence.

The NCAA used to own the publicity rights of college athletes as part of scholarship terms and agreements. It barred athletes from participating in their sport if they had an agent for representation.

Then on July 1 it all changed -- though it should be said that the rules did not change so much as the NCAA decided to waive them. The rules will not be enforced for 400,000-plus college athletes to monetize their Name, Image and Likeness.

Without a federal law, college athletes with burgeoning internet fame can choose between using a third party, an agent, or they could simply rely on themselves to strike endorsement deals and profit off their social media accounts and sell autographs.

For collegiate track athletes who are active and influential online -- names such as Northern Arizona's Nico Young and Central Florida's Rayniah Jones, Duke's Emily Cole and Oregon's Jackson Mestler -- the name on the back of their jersey might start to matter more than one on their front. 

But at what cost?



Nico Young, the sophomore at NAU who placed ninth in the men's 5,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, has begun conversations with companies in good faith. In high school, the Newbury Park athlete had rocketed into both the record books and the annals of high schools stardom, winning Nike Cross Nationals and racking up just over 30-thousand followers on Instagram. His fame had followed him at NAU. So too did the requests from third-party advertisers.

But he had shut them down months earlier when it could have cost him his eligibility. "I'm also talking to a lot of pro runners who have already been doing this," he said.

Young said he expects he will have to post a certain amount of photos and stories endorsing products, but he has chosen to avoid putting his name to anything until he reaches a point of clarity. "I'm not being naive and accepting things that don't make sense," he told me.

If the student-athlete is the worker and the NCAA is the boss, then this new opportunity gives power and profit back to the worker. Of course, that's only one way of looking at it. But the majority of people agree: According to one poll, 62-percent of adults believe athletes should be allowed to profit on the use of their NIL, and 61-percent support allowing student-athletes to make money through endorsements. 

Jones, the 2021 NCAA runner-up in the 100 meter hurdles and a 2019 graduate of Miami Southridge High School, didn't wait long to capitalize. Just a few months in, she's already cut a deal: $2,500 to make three appearances at her local YMCA.

She's making other deals too. With 5.6K followers on Instagram, she says she's staying firm in her conviction that student athletes should capitalize on their name and internet fame.

"I think that it's a great step forward in the direction of just paying student athletes for what they do, so much goes into being a student-athlete," she said. 



Athletes may not want to navigate this road alone, though. That's where a  professional service provider could come in. Using a third-party vendor might help athletes remain focused on what they're already an expert in: running fast.

Young, the 18-year old distance standout with 32K followers on Instagram, is waiting for approval on AspireIQ, a website that will help him minimize time and effort on marketing.

Jones is also pursuing that route. "I hadn't gotten to that serious point of having an agent," she said.

She uses the platform Icon Source to get in touch with brands. Right now, she feels like she has autonomy to make a choice. "I read it over," Jones says. 

Other third parties like Compass can help student athletes list everything that they've been doing, since any deal they make has to be reported to the NCAA. "It takes a lot of paperwork and stuff," Jones said. "It's not as easy as it comes off to be." 

Despite already earning four figures from speaking appearances, she holds negotiations lightly. "They want me to be on TikTok, Instagram, simple stuff like that," Jones said.

As a high-profile athlete with three years of eligibility remaining, she still wants her primary focus to be track.

"I don't want anything to stress me out," she said. "I think it's great just for making opportunities to get yourself out there and have fun with it."

But there are some athletes who aren't looking for a third-party to represent their NIL.

Emily Cole, a senior on the cross country and track team at Duke University, has been managing her social media by herself for years, so she figures, Why change now?

The 2019 Klein High School graduate is up to nearly 10,000 followers on Instagram and prefers to build partnerships on her own rather than using a third party that takes a cut. 



While athletic performances can stand on their own for most athletes, college athletes have an opportunity to make money for diving into other areas of their life, too. Jones says she "didn't even get started into my brand until this season, actually."

"I would recommend spending some time thinking about what your biggest passions are or aspects that make you unique," Cole (above) said. For most runners, their sport is their biggest passion. 

And yet, anything else college athletes reveal about themselves --  or that is somewhat relatable to internet fans-- can help them stand out; perhaps more than glossy NCAA ads could ever do. 

Cole has built a following by offering a look into her life as a collegiate runner. Every Tuesday she posts training tips; she calls it 'Training Tip Tuesday.' She has also begun a series called 'Salty Saturdays' to establish herself as a unique online presence.

It's an area that hits home for Cole. It's "actually sentimental to me because I went into a two-day coma from being too low in sodium my senior year of high school," she said. 

Some athletes, however, don't feel the same ease with profiting off their own image.

Jackson Mestler, the sixth-year distance runner at University of Oregon, has hopes of eventually going pro after he leaves Eugene. He thinks of his brand as the "hometown kid." He grew up in Eugene; his parents, alums of the Oregon track team, met in Eugene, too.

"The struggle for me is making it feel authentic in a way that I can get behind," Mestler said.

His house on campus is down the street from a strip of Eugene that is a local hot spot. "My mind first went to local business," he said. 

The NCAA policy doesn't guarantee any deals; it just makes them possible. Not every female athlete wants to capitalize off her image. Not many people will ask for a DIII runner's autograph. And no companies will likely send sneakers to advertise on someone's Instagram if they only have 100 followers, even if they're Uber fast.

Then, there's the 1-percent: The type of college athletes who are influential without trying to be influencers. Katelyn Tuohy, the NC State distance phenom who owns four national high school records on the track, has a robust 80,000 followers on Instagram. 

While the 2020 graduate of North Rockland High School would be smart to capitalize off that influence, some say she's unlikely to accept endorsements.

"She is not a big fan of being a public figure and really just wants to run," Brian Diglio, Tuohy's former coach at North Rockland, told MileSplit.

In 2015, Tuohy's father told the New York Times, "the amount of attention received over the last year has been very flattering but also a bit overwhelming. "We have made a family decision to limit her/our media exposure and keep her life off the track as normal as possible."



There are unspoken expectations that come with being an NCAA athlete on social media.

Athletes may be coached by their sports departments on staying neutral or saying less controversial lines. The idea of being 'true to yourself without being intimate' could very well identify with most well known athletes. 

But there are also other things that athletes need to worry about. The pseudo-celebrities of track and field -- like Young and Cole and many others -- are often inundated with direct messages from strangers. While that may provide a chance to connect with fans, it could also open the door for things the athletes didn't ask for ...such as verbal abuse or misguided criticism.

From The FloTrack Podcast: NCAA Athletes Can Finally Be Paid

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"I don't really go in there and answer those," Young told me in reference to DMs. "It'd be like a full-time job."

He does look through his messages sometimes. He'll respond to questions publicly on his Instagram story when he feels like it. "Hopefully that covers a lot of the DMs," Young says. 

College athletes, however, are under more scrutiny if they make a mistake or say something that offends anyone.

"My parents always taught me to assume every post or word you put out for the world to see is going straight to your grandma, future college coach, and boss," Cole said. 

Jones also tries to hold back from saying anything too controversial. "It sucks that I have to think like this, but I just realized that whatever I want to really talk about, I can go type somewhere else. If I want to really capitalize off my social media, then I do have to compromise."

Jones plans to make a burner account to tweet what she really wants to tweet. "I used to post a lot of crazy stuff," she says. 



In theory, every college athlete has the same chance to profit off their Name, Image and Likeness. But in reality, college athletes, men and women, across all sports and divisions, are on an unequal field to profit.

Perhaps women, who often have huge online audiences but fewer professional athletic opportunities than their male counterparts, will accept sponsorships and endorsements to supplement their scholarships.

Industry experts believe women may draw the largest deals among college athletes. "Some of the biggest influencers I have seen have been female athletes from TikTok who have millions of followers and had sponsorships lined up and ready to go," Cole said.

Of course, most collegiate athletes won't make any money.

The NCAA policy doesn't guarantee any deals; it just makes them possible. Not every female athlete wants to capitalize off her image. Not many people will ask for a DIII runner's autograph. And no companies will likely send sneakers to advertise on someone's Instagram if they only have 100 followers, even if they're Uber fast.



During the offseason, some athletes sign off from social media.

"I'm separating myself physically from social media during the summer," Jones said.

Her season extended much longer than she expected -- into July -- so she gave herself space to breathe from branding. "I'm saving it for when I go in-season. I know that I'm getting so focused on track. Like, all I'll want to do is probably just post about track." 

And yet those extended breaks could make huge differences. Studies have shown that social media can affect athletes' psychological state; the comparison game can be detrimental to any performance.

If the student-athlete is the worker and the NCAA is the boss, then this new opportunity gives power and profit back to the worker. Of course, that's only one way of looking at it. But the majority of people agree

But the new NIL rule might tempt more athletes to login during a high stakes competition. What happens when failures approaches an athlete who now needs to submit a required post? 

"If an athlete has a ton of followers and they're promoting some brand, then they almost have a job to do on their phone during a meet, and then they might have to use it more," Mestler said.

Those who decide to endorse brands on social media need self control and thick skin. 

"If you see enough people's words and if they're negative, I feel like it can affect you," Jones says. "But if you're already used to people saying negative stuff about you, and you can just block that out, then it probably won't affect you as much," said.

Some athletes harness stressful internet culture to their advantage, though.

Elaine Thompson-Herah, for example, claimed that "bad comments" motivated her to defend her Olympic 100 meter title in Tokyo.



In the dog days of August, the NIL's effect on campus remains a mystery.

"The idea is that we just don't want it to consume our lives to the point where we're not focusing on running anymore and we're focusing on social media," said Young, who will soon reunite with his teammates in Flagstaff.

"I'm definitely going to do what I can do to make some extra money," he added, "But then I also really make sure I have enough time to do the things that I want to do and train to the fullest that I can."

Will the inequality of deals among teammates impact team culture?

Young's coach, Michael Smith, understands what success brings for a program such as NAU. "They don't want us to fall behind, cause they know that eventually if we want to run pro or something, we need to be able to have a brand," Young tells me.

Smith, however, doesn't want the camera to invade the sanctity of practice though. "The reality is what we're doing, not what's on social media," Young said. 

But the reality is: Some college athletes can collect more money than others from their images, so the line is a little blurry now. 

Alternatively, Jones wants to do more recording at practice.

"A lot of girls from other schools like Kentucky are always recording during their workouts. I wish me and my teammates had the same priorities," she tells me. "I feel like that's something that I can capitalize off of this season." 

Jones' coach often records her drills so she can see how she can improve.

Jones thinks if her Central Florida team recorded a reality TV show, people would want to watch it.

"You don't want to hear the conversations that we were having?" she told MileSplit. "You'd be like, 'Oh my God, I probably want to join in' and be like, 'Oh my God, what are you talking about?'"



Few talk about the hardships of influence. No one heard about the pain and pressure that Jones endured during her freshman indoor season for Central Florida. She felt leg pain so severe that she eventually had to resort to taking pain pills before she ran. "I was limping basically and I was still hurdling for some reason," she said. 

If the Florida hurdler gets a bigger platform, she says she would use that position to speak up on issues that impact athletes.  "It just sucked because I just wanted to get my coach some points so badly to finish off the season," Jones said.

Most athletes can probably relate. "It just shows how much dedication we really put into our sport," Jones added. "I wouldn't say for what reason, but for what reason?" 

With the help of the NIL, college athletes can be now be paid for their Name, Image and Likeness -- and perhaps their struggles can also be better understood by the time they reach the pro circuit.

"I feel like as athletes we're told for so long to just push through the pain and never give up," Jones said, before adding: "If people don't see it, then they don't understand how heavy the situation is." 

Everyone's reason to use their platform will be different. 

Jones' reason to profit off her name might be for the greater good: To bring light to the dark places she found herself in, or to create a more inclusive culture when injuries happen.

For Young, Cole or Mestler, their reasons will be their own. 

There's no way an outsider can predict how the NIL and social media will influence athletic performance and shift power dynamics in the NCAA in the months to come.

It's up to college athletes now to grasp the power of their own influence and consider the effects of earning money off their likeness. 

Sheridan Wilbur is a former runner for Duke University, and a writer and editor currently living in Boston.