The Limits of NIL

Building a Brand vs. Building a Movement

The following newsletter will be the first in a series of three newsletters which, taken together, attempt to define my vision for a College Football Players Association (CFBPA). These all are meant to be read together along with the newsletter from this past February which announced my candidacy to lead a CFBPA. Additionally, I urge you to check out my Twitter feed where I am asking for and receiving current and former player and coach endorsements. And, of course, please subscribe to this newsletter or engage in other forms of support if you wish to help in my efforts to organize a CFBPA or if you just want to stay in the loop.

Since I announced my candidacy to start a CFBPA in February, there have been a couple big stories in the world of college sports activism which I wanted to make sure everyone was paying attention to. In particular, I want college football players to see the enormous implications these stories have for the organization of a CFBPA.

Both stories occurred around March Madness. The first site of activism occurred in and around the men’s tournament where high-profile players including Michigan’s Isaiah Livers, Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon and Rutgers’ Geo Baker worked to lead a social media campaign under the hashtag #NotNCAAProperty. As this New York Times report explains, the campaign was designed primarily to bring publicity to the fact that college athletes are not able to monetize their name, image and likeness (NIL) as any other student on campus can do. The leaders of this movement were pushing one immediately actionable demand—a meeting with NCAA President Mark Emmert to convince him to allow immediate NIL rights for college athletes.

The second site of activism occurred around the women’s tournament. Spontaneously, players and coaches began raising concerns on social media and in traditional media outlets about the discrepancy between the conditions the men and women were living and working under. As this USA Today report details, women were highlighting their joke of a weight room with a single set of dumbbells as well as their lack of comparable meals and different COVID testing protocols. The imbalance between these conditions and the conditions the men were living and working under were palpable.

I obviously applaud all of this college athlete activism and am in support of every single one of their demands. Every athlete who spoke out should be commended for their courage in doing so. With this said, I think we need to take a hard look at both of these activist campaigns for what they may have to teach football players as they seek to form a CFBPA. In particular, we much acknowledge that one of these movements was successful and one was not and then ask why this was the case.

In short, the women’s movement was far more successful than the men’s. The women athletes and coaches achieved fast results in remedying their working and living condition imbalance. Additionally, their movement triggered an after-the-fact investigation into why the imbalance occurred in the first place. The men, as this great analysis from Emily Caron shows, saw their hashtag campaign fizzle out pretty quickly. Additionally, they did get their meeting with Mark Emmert but it produced no tangible results as Emmert told them the NCAA would not grant them immediate NIL rights.

I would argue that this imbalance in results stems directly from two interrelated dynamics. First, in the case of the women’s activism, their movement was born organically from a bottom-up groundswell that affected all coaches and players and thus energized them all to achieve results. On the other hand, the men’s movement was top-down from the beginning as a handful of star players worked at organizing and then hoped that others would then hop on board with their efforts. Their main concern—gaining NIL rights—is a worthwhile issue and certainly important to them but maybe not so to the majority of players who would be unlikely to benefit much from monetizing their name, image and likeness.

And therein lies the limits of NIL as a movement-building issue. While a CFBPA would obviously organize and advocate for expansive NIL rights for players, a CFBPA cannot be built by putting NIL rights at the center of the organizing campaign. NIL, while a worthwhile cause, will always divide well-known players from those who are less well-known. Stars will build their already existing individual brands while others would struggle to do the same. As such, NIL will always be an issue which discourages solidarity between all players.

So what type of issues would build such solidarity for football players looking to organize a movement towards a CFBPA? In the past eight years of interacting with and advocating for college football players, I have learned of some key concerns and all are situated around the health, safety and welfare concerns that all football players have in common. For instance, off-season practices, where the majority of player deaths and injuries occur, need to be reigned in and monitored by on-site CFBPA representatives. The 20-hour-per-week in-season and 8-hour-per-week off-season limits for “football-related activities” need to be enforced by CFBPA representatives instead of routinely violated as they are now. Finally, players need to have player representative to make sure they know their existing rights within the system and advocate for them when those rights are violated. These issues will benefit everyone and immediately improve the livelihoods and working conditions of college football players where CFBPA chapters are established. These issues will build a nationwide permanent movement and provide a model for other non-football college athletes to follow in building their own players associations.

Now, with all of this said, a CFBPA would also obviously advocate for full, expansive NIL rights for all college athletes. However, a CFBPA could also offer educational services regarding monetization of NIL free of charge so college football players wouldn’t be exploited by the endless “consulting services” now popping up offering to help players make an NIL buck for a fee. A CFBPA, when established, could help to make sure that NIL rights aren’t just another way for college athletes to be exploited by anyone and everyone looking to make a buck off their labor.