Name, Image, Likeness: 'It's the Athlete Empowerment Era'


It was an unusual summer for college lacrosse. The offseason chatter normally reserved for new rules, coaching changes and the glut of graduate transfers instead revolved around the breakthrough NCAA legislation that permits college student-athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness for the first time.

No longer shackled by Bylaw 12.5.2.1 that barred student-athletes from profiting during their college careers for the sake of amateurism, the NIL era began July 1 with the NCAA’s implementation of an interim policy as the issue gained steam with the federal and state governments.

And while non-revenue sports like lacrosse were not necessarily the impetus for the change, it has not stopped lacrosse players or the industry from diving into these uncharted waters.

“It’s all new territory for everybody,” said Charlotte North, the incredibly popular Boston College attacker and Tewaaraton Award winner. “It’s very exciting, but it’s taking some time to work through what’s possible and what’s not, what would be in our best interest. It’s definitely a new world.”

Opportunities exist with sponsored posts or advertisements on social media, autograph sales, endorsement deals, private training lessons, selling merchandise and monetizing YouTube and Twitter videos.

“Charlotte North, [UNC’s] Taylor Moreno — if they do it right, they can run with it,” said former Virginia Tech goalie and current Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse pro Angie Benson. “They can easily make six figures if they want to. Those types of players will benefit.”

While the market is red hot for college football and men’s basketball players from Power Five-type programs, athletes from lower-profile sports and smaller schools also have been doing well. Chloe Mitchell, a volleyball player at NAIA Aquinas College, was the first to profit off an NIL deal back in December. LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne and Nebraska volleyball player Lexi Sun signed endorsement deals after July 1, and one of the first big deals on the day the legislation went into effect came from Fresno State women’s basketball twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder.

“Lacrosse maybe doesn’t have the biggest audience, but it has a valuable audience and a really passionate audience,” said Colin Rosenblum, who helped build The Lacrosse Network (160,000 subscribers on YouTube) with his partner, Samir Chaudry. They’ve since started Colin and Samir (283,000 subscribers) while cultivating content specifically for YouTube creators. “So while kids are in college, they can get deals from endemic brands — from STX or Warrior — and can also get deals from their college towns.”

Add the monster NIL legislation change to the free agency-like effects of the transfer portal that debuted in October 2018 and the extra eligibility afforded players from 2020, and all of a sudden student-athletes have newfound strength, flexibility and influence in college. 

“It’s the athlete empowerment era,” former USC player Katie DeFeo said.


“It’s the athlete empowerment era.”

— Katie DeFeo


DeFeo left USC after two seasons to expand her social media opportunities. The content creator, videographer, editor and social media consultant has more than 65,000 followers on her YouTube channel. 

“I’d like to think the past four years of my life wouldn’t have been any different with NIL, except I would have been able to make the money that I deserved to be making,” DeFeo said. “That’s what excites me about these kids and the opportunities they have.”

The NCAA’s hand was forced by states that passed their own NIL laws to go into effect July 1. The NCAA opened NIL to all schools because it didn’t want some having an unfair advantage over others in states that had no legislation. Uncertainty remains.

“It’s unique to have something in place where there’s really no enforcement policy at the federal, state or local level,” Virginia men’s lacrosse coach Lars Tiffany said. “At this point, if a student-athlete violates a policy, what’s the penalty? Nobody knows.”

Coaches, schools and the NCAA want a federal mandate. The NCAA announced its NIL legislation as interim “until federal legislation or new NCAA rules are adopted.” At least three bills have been introduced to Congress.

“We have massive variance from state to state, which will produce confusion, such as is it where you live, or where you go to school?” said Samantha Ekstrand, legal counsel for the IWLCA. “Understanding the differences state to state, particularly where they affect you, like if you live in one state and go to school in another state and which law governs where you’re running your business out of, it’s a concern. It would have been great if we had been able to roll this out in a national way.”

Twenty-eight states had passed their own NIL legislation by the end of July. Conferences and schools also have been writing their own policies to clarify further what is not allowed. Student-athletes are not allowed to be paid to play or paid to stay at a school. Some schools have banned boosters entirely from dealing with student-athletes, although NCAA legislation does not prohibit it. International students on student visas must consult their schools, but many are being told that they cannot make money off NIL. 

“The biggest challenge is making sure that we are educating the student-athletes like we’ve done for years,” said Steve McClain, senior associate athletic director at Florida. “But because of the way the law is written, there are things we can’t be a part of, like negotiating deals and giving them advice on deals. For the first time, at least in the state of Florida, those same athletes have access to agents and lawyers, which they haven’t had before.”








High Point’s Asher Nolting said the Panthers’ staff, including sports information director Kevin McMahon, held an NIL seminar shortly after the rules went into effect. Nolting signed with Lax.com, an online retailer, and reported the contract using an app called INFLCR, which allows High Point to track athletes’ NIL deals and flag any conflicts. (Lax.com also inked Loyola’s Kevin Lindley, North Carolina’s Will Bowen and Syracuse’s Megan Carney.)

“It is tricky to navigate, and it’s a lot of information to know,” Nolting said. “[High Point] did a great job of teaching us and letting us know what we could do. This is a great opportunity for kids going to school now. Going to local businesses and outside sponsors, it’s great for the game and there are going to be some kids that eventually make a lot of money.”

“We’re kind of the guinea pigs for it,” Lindley said. “It’ll be interesting what it’s like in the next five years.”

With coaches and college employees unable to counsel student-athletes on deals, schools are cautioning them to consult with lawyers, agents or a trusted source before they sign any contracts. They’re worried athletes will rush into deals to make a quick buck.

“A solid business model is not, ‘My DMs are open for NIL. Hit me up if you want to do business with me,’” McClain said. “But when this thing happened July 1, that’s what a lot of people did. The challenge we have is to get people to understand, yes, there are going to be some quick grabs, but the long-term planning and strategic approach it takes to be successful in the real business world.”

Benson stressed continued education. “A lot of student-athletes don’t understand the difference between being an ambassador and a sponsored athlete,” she said. “You’re selling your name, image and likeness. You’re your own company. A lot of people are selling their souls just to make another company money while they get no money.”

Barstool Athletes Inc. welcomed hundreds of college athletes of all abilities July 1, though Barstool president Dave Portnoy tweeted later that day, “No clue what we were doing.” Coaches and schools are worried about the ramifications of student-athletes acting without considering every consequence. Something as simple as taxes could be overlooked, or financial aid could be compromised, or a student-athlete could end up locked into a bad contract.

DeFeo freely offers advice to lacrosse players who are looking to follow her footsteps of building their brand online and rattles off the names of three current players at the forefront of NIL opportunities because of their online presence — Mitchell Pehlke, Stelios Kroudis and Kait Devir. They produce YouTube videos about their college careers, but until now could not profit.

“There would be people that would hit me up my three first years in college and would want to work with me,” said Kroudis, a senior on the Villanova men’s lacrosse team whose YouTube channel has 33,000 subscribers. “I’d have to turn them down pretty quick or just kind of ignore them. It would jeopardize my scholarship and eligibility.”

After Benson left Towson, she ran her own camps and clinics, but had to pay back money she made from them when she returned to play collegiately at Virginia Tech. “Do I get my money back?” she wondered. “It’s awesome and I’m glad that everyone can benefit from it, but what about the people that got screwed over and shafted because of it? I definitely have mixed emotions about it.”

Pehlke, a junior attackman on the Ohio State men’s lacrosse team, is a well-known content creator who has had a YouTube presence since 2015. In high school, he could profit off his large niche following and sell merchandise, but that halted during his first two years of college. He woke up at 5 a.m. on July 1 to offers.

“Long-term stuff is in the works with different lacrosse companies to different clothing brands to all sorts of stuff,” said Pehlke, one of 14 NCAA student-athletes to sign endorsement deals right out of the gate with Degree deodorant. “The biggest thing has been aligning myself with a brand that has the same values and the same outlook on life as me.”

Pehlke later inked a deal with STX, the lacrosse equipment giant that also brought on Syracuse’s Tucker Dordevic, Duke’s Brennan O’Neill and Nakeie Montgomery, North Carolina’s Chris Gray and Johns Hopkins’ Connor DeSimone.

Social media giants in the game have worked to build their brands and caution any student-athletes who think it’s an easy road. They chronicle how they stay up late after classes, practice and homework to polish off content that must be of a quality to attract followers and sponsors.

“A lot of people will have amazing opportunities with this,” Kroudis said. “They need to find the discipline and passion to make time for them.”




PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER

Sam Swart has NIL deals with Barstool Sports and Syracuse staples Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Original Grain and XO Taco.


Pehlke feels fortunate to attend Ohio State, which anticipated the NIL rollout. The school held weekly Zoom meetings to educate athletes in the month leading up to the legislation change and has been supportive of their pursuits. UNC has asked players to put their names in a pool if they’d like to be contacted by area businesses.

“That’s going to play into recruiting,” Rosenblum said. “It’s not only, are you going to get a great education, but can we make you money now as a college athlete? Whichever school is ahead of the game is going to win from that regard. That’s a huge recruiting play.”

Others may not have built as big of a social media following but can lean on their on-field abilities and use more of their notoriety as a college lacrosse player at a particular school. North is one example, having announced a partnership with iSlide that’s resulted in her own line of footwear, socks and other apparel. Pat Kavanagh, a Tewaaraton finalist as a sophomore at Notre Dame, and O’Neill, a freshman sensation with Duke last spring, also could garner lucrative offers.

Lacrosse Unlimited went all-in on NIL. The retailer announced July 28 that it had signed Aurora Cordingley (Maryland), Kasey Choma (Notre Dame), Brendan Curry (Syracuse), DeSimone (Johns Hopkins), Joey Epstein (Johns Hopkins), Gray (North Carolina), Kelsey Huff (USC), Joe Robertson (Duke), Belle Smith (Boston College) and Sam Swart (Syracuse).

Coming off a breakthrough season and now getting looks for U.S. teams, Swart, the speedy midfielder, already had deals with Barstool, as well as Syracuse staples Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, Original Grain and XO Taco. A Pennsylvania native, she had to make sure the agreements complied with two sets of state laws and school rules.

“Mostly, it’s about getting your name bigger so you can do your own thing later on,” Swart said. “Being in lacrosse, no one’s throwing money at you like a quarterback at Clemson.”

“There are a number of ways players can profit from the NIL rules, though my assumption will be mostly through camps, clinics, appearances and branded content,” said PLL co-founder Paul Rabil, the former Hopkins star whose massive social media following helped make him the first pro lacrosse player to earn $1 million in endorsements. “Where there are university shops, you might also see top players earn royalties on campus jersey sales.”

Tenacious Turtles Lacrosse Club in Hauppauge, N.Y., advertised its “Jamie Ortega Women’s Lacrosse Training” in July with a photo of the UNC senior attacker wearing her No. 3 in Carolina blue. “I could use myself and could post it on Instagram or Facebook, which is really nice,” Ortega said. “It’s definitely been different, but for the better. I’ve been a lot busier this summer for sure.”

Ortega reached out to some companies to express interest in working together but gravitated to camp and clinic opportunities. Even leading equipment manufacturers are still navigating the ins and outs of NIL. “It’s so early on, we’re trying to understand the landscape,” said Ed Saunders, STX vice president of sales and marketing.

Ortega had to get approval to use UNC’s school colors and report the logistics of the clinic, including how much she would be paid.

“Given that the endorsement of a player does not include their university marks, you might think that top-school recognition won’t be as much in play,” Rabil said. “But the blue-blood universities tend to come with a bigger fan base, alumni support, network contracts and jersey and equipment manufacturer investments — each of which can lend to greater player notoriety and economic opportunity.”

Tiffany believes the next 12 to 24 months will impact college athletics for the next two decades as student-athletes, coaches, schools, conferences, states and the country enter the NIL era. McClain agreed.

“We all have to understand the rules together,” McClain said. “It’s a compliance issue. It’s a communications issue. It’s a marketing issue. It’s a licensing issue. It’s an equipment issue. It’s a head coaching issue from a team management standpoint. It’s an issue for everybody.”

Additional reporting for this story by Kenny DeJohn and Matt Hamilton. This article appears in the September/October edition of USA Lacrosse Magazine. Join our momentum.