“If NIL deals were in effect before and schools were offering money, I probably would have chosen football.”
— Olympian and NCAA Champion, Micah Williams
College athletes are navigating new rules allow which allow them to get paid for the use of their name, image and likeness. Many pundits and fans stay up to date on the biggest NIL deals, such as the partnership between USC’s Caleb Williams and multi-billion dollar audio company Beats by Dre. But most are unaware of the personal effects of NIL deals on collegiate athletes. Since NIL deals were only recently enacted, there’s little we understand about the impact they have on the mental well-being of college athletes — especially those not getting lucrative contracts.
USC’s defending NCAA champion water polo player Brooklyn Aguilera said that while NIL deals could bring more awareness to her sport, only the most influential players on the team are offered deals, such as Olympian and redshirt sophomore Tilly Kearns. That’s a stark contrast to the USC football team that, despite going 4-8 last season, has multiple players with at least one brand deal.
“You look at my team, a defending national championship team, and… one to none of us have an NIL deal,” Aguilera said.
While she has not let the thought of NIL deals affect her negatively, she said it is frustrating to see other players reach out to brands and not receive any word back. Aguilera’s teammate, junior driver Grace Tehaney, echoed the same sentiment:
“I think football and basketball get a lot of recognition to begin with, and as a woman water polo player we don’t get that opportunity as much,” Tehaney said. “It’s a little unfair.”
Both players said that team dynamics remain relatively unaffected by NIL deals but admitted they see room for potential issues to rise. Due to the niche popularity of water polo, they are forced to go out of their way to get a brand’s attention — foreshadowing future complications for those who desire NIL deals and brand recognition.
For now, many athletes appear to be taking a mature approach to what they perceive as the unfair concentration of NIL deals while also recognizing the negative emotions tied to the uncertainty of obtaining partnerships.
University of California, Berkley rower Spencer Dettlinger shrugged off any interest in NIL deals, saying rowing is one of the last true amateur sports not motivated by large contracts. Since the sport relies entirely on collective effort, he said, “it would only be fair to sponsor a whole boat or a whole program as opposed to one individual because it’s not really fair to the other people.”
Dettlinger, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, said pursuing an NIL deal would likely cause him a lot of anxiety, as he would feel pressured to constantly present his best self to a company.
Even if deals were to be extended to a sport such as rowing, Dettlinger said they might have to be structured differently than those given to football or basketball based on how cohesively the team operates. He also said that players in smaller sports may not feel comfortable reaching out to unfamiliar brands or having to deal with NIL partnerships as potential distractions.
But those with major deals find that they can create a different set of mental health challenges. Former USC, current University of Pittsburgh quarterback Kedon Slovis highlighted how NIL deals tie one’s own image and values to the brand they partner with.
“You are representing not only yourself but another brand,” Slovis said.
The increased emphasis on image is nothing new for the former PAC-12 Freshman of the Year but can be a substantial added pressure for lesser-known athletes unaccustomed to mass attention.
However, even a player as level-headed as Slovis had some minor headaches throughout the business side of NIL. “It was stressful enough just talking to everyone about what [the deal] is going to look like, certain agencies are sending me deals left and right and I’m like ‘well this isn’t really a coordinated plan,’” Slovis said about his first time receiving contracts.
Stress in the face of contract chaos is just one example of how overwhelming NIL deals can be for athletes in the spotlight. Slovis said he “couldn’t imagine” navigating his brand deals during football season when gameplay is his number one priority. However, he also voiced how posting advertisements can feel ill-timed in relation to the success of games.
“It felt a little weird to have to promote a product or a brand in the midst of the thing you care about most not going the way you want it to,” Slovis said.
In this case, not only is the brand putting on pressure to maintain an image, but also pressure to perform well or risk scrutiny from fans for sharing a sponsored post directly following a loss. But as awkward as posting a sponsorship in the middle of a lackluster season may be, the transfer QB was entirely thankful to have the opportunity to capitalize on NIL deals.
Other athletes, such as Oregon track and field star Micah Williams, do not share the same position. Despite being an Olympian and NCAA champion in the 60-meter dash, Williams said the majority of brands look at social media following first and name second.
“It’s not really about if you’re good or not, it’s more about who has the bigger following,” Williams said. “[NIL] sucks because the U.S. doesn’t make track or other sports a big thing because they’re not flashy or whatever… you work your butt off and you’re like ‘Damn, I see football players making ten, thirty, forty, fifty grand.’”
Most of the athletes spoken to for this piece were skeptical of the impact the deals will have on their sport, but Williams’s assessment was the most blunt.
NIL deals were initially hailed as a solution for college athletes struggling with money, but now only deepen a divide between the sports inside and those outside of the main public sphere. Williams demonstrates the frustrating reality of NIL deals: no matter how elite one may be at their sport, deals based on popularity will never give all athletes the justice they might deserve.
“Of course, I’d want to make ten, twenty, thirty grand but I came to the realization that that will never happen,” Williams said. “I just like running track and if the NIL deals come, they come.”