By Ed Brennen
Should collegiate student-athletes be able to make money by endorsing a product, selling their autograph or appearing at an event?
For more than a century, they couldn’t. But that all changed last summer when the NCAA bowed to legal and political pressure and waived its rules prohibiting student-athletes from profiting off their name, image and likeness (NIL).
Since then, student-athletes across the country have been getting into the NIL game, including close to two dozen River Hawks who have struck up endorsement deals with local and national businesses. They’re promoting everything from fitness apparel and nutritional supplements to a downtown coffee shop, primarily through social media.
“It’s been a game-changer for the NCAA — and for us,” says UML Assoc. Athletic Director for Marketing and Promotions Jon Boswell
, who has been busy this year getting River Hawks up to speed on the new rules.
The NCAA’s NIL policy
leaves it up to states to pass their own legislation regulating how student-athletes can profit off their fame. In states without NIL legislation, such as Massachusetts, the rules are left up to individual schools, which has created a bit of a “Wild West situation,” Boswell says.
“It’s been a game-changer for the NCAA — and for us.”
-Assoc. Athletic Director Jon Boswell
UML’s NIL policy
is part of a systemwide UMass policy. It allows student-athletes to market themselves as a member of their team (although they can’t use UML logos) and receive compensation from a third party in exchange for “services, activities, intellectual property or appearances.” Student-athletes are responsible for tax obligations on any income, and international student-athletes are limited by the terms of their visa status.
“Now that it has arrived, this policy should provide our student-athletes a path forward to maximize their opportunities,” says Director of Athletics Peter Casey
Student-athletes must disclose any NIL compensation to the university, and the university cannot introduce the two sides or broker the deal. (Maine, by comparison, passed NIL legislation that allows schools to act as intermediaries.)
“Our policy is geared toward letting the student-athlete do this, but having the university maintain some level of connection to it and helping them understand the rules,” says Boswell, who was part of an NIL committee that the university formed in spring 2020 in anticipation of the rules change. “The hard part is that NIL is so confusing to everybody. Businesses have no idea that this is even an option for them.”
Running Side Hustle
One of the first River Hawks to land an NIL deal was Will Benoit
, a first-year distance runner on the men’s cross country and track and field teams. He browsed online for companies seeking student-athlete ambassadors and found Rastaclat, a company that makes bracelets he likes.
“It was important to me to choose a brand that makes a product that I use and truly enjoy,” says Benoit, a business administration
major from Fairhaven, Massachusetts. “I’m not pushing something on someone else that I wouldn’t use myself.”
After his deal was approved by the Athletic Department, Benoit received a few free bracelets from the company in exchange for posting a photo of himself wearing the product on Instagram. The company also created a personal promo code for him to share that gave customers 20% off their purchase — with Benoit getting a small commission on each sale.
“I didn’t make a ton of money; it was just kind of a fun thing I did. But I did make some money that definitely helped,” says Benoit, who has continued promoting the company on his Instagram stories to his 1,100-plus followers.
Indeed, most student-athletes won’t see the million-dollar NIL deals that a select few are getting at big-time football and basketball programs — or that LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne got, thanks to her nearly 6 million followers on TikTok and Instagram. But Benoit still feels “lucky” to be starting his college career in the new NIL era.
“Now that I’m a student-athlete, I see how much work goes into it,” he says. “Having a job can be really difficult for a student-athlete, so I think the NIL rules have really helped.”
Women’s soccer player Halle Anderson
jumped into the NIL game in her senior year, becoming an ambassador for one of her favorite hangout spots in Lowell: Brew’d Awakening Coffeehaus.
“It’s always been a really cool place where so many different people from Lowell connect,” says Anderson, an exercise physiology major from Stonington, Connecticut, who is starting grad school at Duke this fall.
Besides sharing a Brew’d Awakening promo code with her 1,700-plus followers on Instagram that gives her a small percentage of the sales, Anderson was able to use her connection with the business to promote another of her passions: art.
“I’ve always been into art, but I felt like, as an athlete, I could only identify as one thing,” she says.
That changed during the pandemic, when Anderson was recovering from a knee injury that she suffered in the final game of her sophomore season.
“I had time to find value in other things and get more involved with art,” says Anderson, who began sharing her sketches and paintings on social media. “I received a lot of positive feedback from friends, which helped me gain confidence.”
In fall 2020, Brew’d Awakening owner Andy Jacobson asked Anderson if she would like to display some of her artwork in the shop.
“It was super fun. My friends and the Lowell community were so supportive,” says Anderson, who wasn’t able to promote herself as a UML women’s soccer player at that time, since it was prior to the NIL rules change.
When she was invited to show her work again last fall, however, Anderson did so as a Division I women’s soccer player. And because Brew’d Awakening is a corporate sponsor of the athletic program, the women’s soccer team held a fundraiser at the coffee shop on Homecoming Weekend — with Anderson on hand selling her paintings.
“It felt really special to have these different parts of my life come together in a very positive way,” she says. “I’d never thought about using my student-athlete brand for monetary reasons. But you realize you have a big platform within a small community. If I can use my brand to show that a student-athlete can also be an artist and a member of the community, I think that’s important.”
This summer, the NCAA will review its new NIL policy, which it is calling “interim,” and it is hoping that Congress will pass federal legislation for a more uniform solution.
Until then, Boswell and the Athletic Department will keep educating UML student-athletes about the do’s and don’ts of NIL.
“The biggest thing we want them to know is that they don’t have to say ‘yes’ to everything,” Boswell says. “You have an opportunity to think about it. It’s not just quick money grabs. A lot of these deals you have to work to solicit and figure out how to market yourself.
“But knowing it’s an option, and knowing the way student-athletes and their parents think, it has the ability to dramatically alter the landscape.”