The Evolution of College Sports



The Market Value of Name Image & Likeness (NIL)? Reputation

NOTE: This article originally appeared in the September 27, 2021, issue of 

The name, image and likeness industry has emerged and it’s taking college sports by storm. On July 1, the NIL floodgates opened and a frenzy of athletes are entering deals. Conferences, colleges and the athletes themselves must understand this key point: Name, image and likeness may be a right of publicity, but in reality, we’re really talking about reputation. With that in mind, student athletes must have a 360-degree view of NIL, understanding their opportunities and reputational risk.

Before becoming a sports public relations pro, I was a Division I student athlete. A proponent of student-athlete compensation, I served on various NCAA committees and testified before the Vermont State Senate on its NIL bill. I lived NIL as both a student athlete and a stakeholder in the decision-making processes at the conference and NCAA levels, and state and federal legislatures. From my experience, I can tell you: Guarding reputation is a crucial aspect of the NIL conversation that needs consideration.

The biggest issue for athletes is that NIL deals present significant reputational risks, and the institutions they play for aren’t providing them with the resources needed to mitigate the risk NIL can have on their reputations. Among the looming NIL reputational risks: entering a brand deal with a questionable company, encountering legal issues from a breach of contract or improper tax filings, and experiencing backlash from heightened social visibility.

NIL opportunities are a marathon, not a sprint. No matter the athletes’ performance on the field of play, NIL market value plummets if their reputation tarnishes. NIL hinges on the reputation of the athlete.

Colleges are providing student athletes access to professional services to help navigate NIL deals. But they also need advice on avoiding the long-term reputational impact NIL deals can have on their eligibility, career and legal standing.

Social media and reputation

Many reputational issues arise through social media. As a Gen Z’er, I understand all too well my cohort’s desire for instant gratification from Instagram and TikTok. Athletes’ social platforms are vessels to grow their personal brand and maintain a reputation that will carry them past their collegiate careers. But the concoction of hashtags, trends and aesthetics, and the vulnerability of personal content sharing are a slippery slope, or maybe cliff, for the 500,000 NCAA student athletes who just gained access to profit off their reputations. 

The NIL landscape presents the question of not if, but when reputational issues involving traditional and social media will arise for both athletes and their institutions. They already are for “Barstool Athletes.”

This summer, “Barstool Sports” unveiled its social media-based NIL opportunity. Thousands of athletes entered the deal, many naively unaware that partnering with a brand tied to alcohol, controlled substances and sports betting could violate state law and their school’s policies. 

Case in point, the University of Louisville told its student athletes to cease involvement with “Barstool Sports,” a decision echoed in proposed federal legislation and likely to cause a domino effect involving other institutions and athletes. Suppose these athletes had a comprehensive view of NIL with access to reputational management. In that case, they’d understand that a brand’s identity is tied to their own and could cast a negative shadow on their reputation for future deals.

Legal stability and reputation

The legal issues athletes can encounter in NIL deals are numerous. Athletes should approach NIL as an opportunity to gain professional experience, which will propel them in their post-college life. But for those who tarnish their reputation through social media, unscrupulous deals or legal actions, their NIL experiences may not be worth highlighting — or could even be detrimental to their futures.

Consider a student athlete who enters four NIL deals but unintentionally breaks the contracts of three. This unreliability tarnishes the athlete’s reputation, lowering their NIL market value and the prospect of future deals.

Perhaps an athlete is unaware of the tax ramifications tied to increased NIL earnings and files incorrectly, resulting in a hit to their financial reputation. Furthermore, consider an athlete who mistakenly posts an Instagram picture depicting underage drinking, losing deals and eligibility. If these athletes had received reputation management, they’d be taught the importance of abiding by contracts and of having an action plan to mitigate reputational risk.

If athletes are heading into NIL deals without proper thought to reputation management, they’re set up for poor performance. An athlete wouldn’t head into a competition without training. In fact, colleges and universities wouldn’t let them — after all, it reflects poorly on an institution’s reputation to put ill-prepared athletes on the field.

NIL warrants oversight outside of athletic departments and should even be the responsibility of the institution’s general counsel. Non-autonomy conferences’ best option is to provide athletes the independent resources needed to mitigate reputational risk. Don’t forget, these student athletes are in college to learn. NIL presents the opportunity to acquire lessons on financial, legal — and reputational — stability.

Simply put, NIL is an uncharted industry. It’s unrealistic to assume that 18- to 22-year-olds will foresee the risks NIL deals can pose. It’s time for conferences and schools to enlist experts to protect student athletes’ reputations, as well as their own. Pay attention to the institutions whose athletes’ NIL deals flourish — they will be the ones who paced their NIL marathon, were provided a 360-degree view of the reputational landscape and recognized the athletes’ NIL market value as their reputation.

— Kailyn Myshrall

Kailyn Myshrall is a former Division I student athlete and NCAA Committee member currently at PRCG | Sports, the sports marketing brand of PRCG | Haggerty LLC.