The NCAA has long barred student athletes from being paid “to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind.” That is, until June 21, 2021, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the NCAA cannot stop student athletes from pursuing name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals or other financial opportunities. This decision marks a decisive turning point in the organization’s 115-year history.
Though college sports is a multi-billion-dollar industry—many high-profile coaches are paid more than university presidents—student athletes are just beginning to get a share. We are already seeing players sign endorsement deals involving merch, podcasts and local deals with restaurants and businesses. And these athletes’ social media platforms don’t just provide an opportunity for paid placements—the fact that the athletes are now essentially more free to brand themselves as individuals means their channels may also be an increasingly prominent platform for them to amplify worthy causes.
As a former Division I field hockey player, I realize this deal will affect players and sports differently. My sport did not generate revenue, but I had a platform, a visibility, on my campus, and doing good for others was an integral part of our program, whether that was volunteering at the local elementary school, providing free clinics for local youth, or helping in our community’s food shelter. I was also the president of my school’s Athlete Ally chapter, a club on campus that advocated for LGBTQ equality in sports, and I would’ve loved to see student athletes become Athlete Ally ambassadors. Any athlete can create impact on a local level.
And for athletes in revenue-generating sports, the chance for impact is exponentially greater. These athletes can and should consider how to make social-good efforts part of their brand, whether they actively educate their followers about causes that are important to them, encourage actions like attending rallies, or even donate to important causes and encourage their followers to do the same.
In the summer of 2020, many college athletes started using their platforms to speak out in the ongoing struggle for racial justice and equity. University of California, Berkeley volleyball player Preslie Anderson wrote an acclaimed poem about her experiences at a Black Lives Matter protest, and University of Michigan football player Adam Shibley helped launch The Uniform Funding Foundation, which donates customized uniforms and equipment and offers mentorship to underserved inner-city youth. Both of these athletes are great examples of socially conscious athletes whose values could align well with socially conscious brands.
This Supreme Court decision does not guarantee athletes are going to get wealthy (well, maybe some), but it does mean athletes are free to pursue exciting opportunities. What they do with this freedom is entirely up to them. But I would encourage student athletes to make purposeful decisions, and I would encourage the advertising industry to explore the exciting new ways to amplify worthy causes that this decision brings.