‘Now we can reap all the benefits.’ Student-athletes celebrate name, image and likeness opportunity

A+helmet+rests+on+the+field+during+the+University+of+Kentucky+Football+media+day+on+Friday%2C+August+5%2C+2016+in+Lexington%2C+Ky.+Photo+by+Hunter+Mitchell+%7C+Staff

A helmet rests on the field during the University of Kentucky Football media day on Friday, August 5, 2016 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Hunter Mitchell | Staff

Sophia Shoemaker

For years, student-athletes have been unable to profit off their name, image or likeness. But as of July 1, 2021, the years-long legal debate is over. Two months ago, new NCAA rules and state laws officially went into effect that provided athletes with various levels of new opportunities to make money by selling their name, image and likeness (NIL).

The law served to protect “amateurism,” the notion being that since collegiate athletes are not professionals, they do not need to be paid. The NCAA believed that scholarships and stipends were sufficient payment. Student-athletes faced the possibility of suspension if they violated the rules. 

While there have been many lawsuits involving the NCAA and NIL rules, nothing changed until 2019 when California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law that allowed college athletes to sign endorsement deals while protecting their collegiate eligibility. Newsom’s push posed many questions as to what would happen to athletes, but its effects were limited to the state of California. That is no longer the case; now, the NIL rules allow everyone to profit. 

More than 100 of UK’s 500-plus student-athletes have taken advantage of the law change already by entering into nearly 300 NIL agreement transactions, said Tony Neely, UK’s assistant athletic director for athletics communications and public relations. 

One is junior rifle shooter Mary Tucker, newly-crowned Olympic silver medalist in the mixed team air rifle event.

Tucker said that participating in NIL opportunities promotes her sport to a wider audience. 

“Rifle is a small sport and not many people pay attention to it,” she said. “One of the ways we can help ourselves is through sponsorships.”

Tucker added that the equipment is expensive and if she and her teammates wanted nice suits in the past, they would have to pay out of pocket.

Currently, Tucker has a contract with Pardini, a sports firearm brand, but she hasn’t received any money so far. 

 “With rifle being so small, most of the companies only do equipment,” she said. 

Tucker said she thinks the new law is going to help a lot of athletes stay in collegiate sports, since they will be able to make money while in school. She did run into some problems with the process, though. 

“It was kind of inconveniently timed,” Tucker said. “They told us about this July 1, and those of us who went to the Olympics left around July 16. I had a week and a half to figure these laws out and get sponsors before the Games.”

Tucker said that UK did a good job of answering her questions about the NIL process, which demonstrates what Neely said was years of preparation by the university’s Brand and Content Unit. Its “student-athletes first” approach has been focused on amplifying student-athlete voices for years, he said. The university has also formed relationships with social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and Twitter and is now the first client of INFLCR, a content access and distribution app. INFLCR allows student-athletes to access photos and videos as well as enter the details of their NIL agreements for approval by the athletics compliance department. 

Junior Masai Russell, a hurdler on UK’s Track and Field team, has submitted a lot of those forms for approval. She currently has about seven NIL contracts with companies including Hulu, Champs, Eastbay and Starface, an up-and-coming skincare line, and she said she is in the process of obtaining more. 

“I had the followers, I had the platform. It was an opportunity to make me greater than just track and field,” Russell said. “Track isn’t going to last forever. So, if I can do a big partnership or be a brand ambassador that’s something that could last for years.”

Russell thinks that NIL provides athletes a good opportunity to showcase their personal brand, who they are both inside and outside of sport, through social media. 

“I’ve never seen the point of why we weren’t able to,” she said. “Now we can reap all the benefits and run with it.”

A year ago, junior golfer Marissa Wenzler didn’t think much about NIL. She figured it was mostly for the bigger sports, like football and basketball. 

However, as the 2021 Women’s Western Amateur Championship winner and qualifier for the 2021 Women’s Amateur Championship — where she made it to the round of 32, defeating a No. 1 seed golfer as a No. 64 seed in the process — Wenzler was in a good position to make sponsorship deals heading into this year.  

Wenzler has learned how to negotiate deals and work with people in the classroom as a business major. Now, as an ambassador for Tour Line Golf and Slate Milk, she can put that knowledge to real-life use.

Wenzler said she’s learned she shouldn’t wait for people to come to her; if she likes a product, she needs to reach out, too. She currently has several deals in the works and hopes to partner with Perfect Putter, her trusted equipment brand, in the future.

Tour Line pays Wenzler for sponsored posts on her social media, but she said that’s just the first step.

“Once you become a part of their company, that’s not the only thing that you’re going to do,” she said. “We have this agreement for two months, and then, if [Tour Line founder Christian Heavens] likes working with me and I like working with him, then we can continue that agreement and do a couple more other things as well.”

Wenzler has received $200 and some equipment from her partnership with Tour Line so far and Slate Milk pays her with the product. Although the deals are small, Wenzler said they make a difference. 

“People may argue student-athletes [are] getting paid with scholarships. Yes, however, it’s also nice to be able to make money for yourself that you wouldn’t really be able to make anyways because you don’t have time for a job,” Wenzler said. “You’re not making crazy deals like the football players are right now, but it’s definitely nice to make some side money and to help out, and it’ll add up in the long run.”