Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett
PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 23: Kenny Pickett #8 of the Pittsburgh Panthers celebrates after a 27-17 win over the Clemson Tigers at Heinz Field on October 23, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
Culture

College Athletes Are Using NILs As a Way to Give Back

Why this matters

Much of the talk about the NCAA’s name, image, and likeness policy in its first few months has focused on student-athletes’ more traditional sponsorships, such as the local car dealership and the national restaurant chain. But, in the meantime, several athletes have been using their NILs to give back and to direct money to people in need.

When Florida State University offensive lineman Dillan Gibbons first learned he’d be able to use his name, image, and likeness (NIL) in endorsement deals after a National Collegiate Athletic Association rule change this summer, he immediately wanted to explore ways he could help others. Gibbons decided to start a GoFundMe to help a friend he had met in 2017, when he played for the University of Notre Dame. The friend, Timothy Donovan, has severe medical conditions, including VACTERL and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, and he uses a wheelchair.

Initially, Gibbons wanted to raise enough money to bring Donovan and his family to a game in Tallahassee. But the GoFundMe took off and raised more than $30,000 in less than a day, Gibbons says. Since then, it has raised more than $65,000 to provide for Donovan’s medical expenses. As the GoFundMe campaign grew, Gibbons connected with GoFundMe CMO Musa Tariq, and the company decided to sponsor Gibbons – making him its first sponsored athlete.

Gibbons also created a nonprofit called Big Man Big Heart to help other athletes use their NILs for social good. So far, he has raised more than $150,000 for people in need and has set up five GoFundMe campaigns. GoFundMe provides executive assistance to Gibbons in these endeavors, and it has contributed monetary support to the campaigns Gibbons has set up.

Big Man Big Heart streamlines the process and eliminates some of the barriers that student-athletes face in managing their own individual campaigns, such as the financial implications for someone who provides a monetary gift to an individual rather than a nonprofit. Big Man Big Heart is also supported by corporate sponsors, including Camping World.

Big Man Big Heart now has three campus ambassadors at other universities in Florida and will announce more in the coming months. The goal is to encourage other athletes to use their NILs to do good and “to educate these individuals and give them all the tools and resources that I didn’t have available to me at the time of creating a GoFundMe,” Gibbons says.

In the beginning, “all the donations and sponsorships were just to give Timothy his day in the sun, and he’s had that day. But it’s going to be amplified by 100,000” as word spreads, Gibbons says. Big Man Big Heart was featured on ESPN’s College GameDay over Thanksgiving weekend.

NIL Can ‘Move Missions Forward’

Since July, NCAA athletes have been able to make money off their NILs, a sea change from the decades of highly regulated college sports seasons that came before. Athletes across the country have partnered with companies ranging from small local businesses to national brands. But athletes like Gibbons have also found ways to use their NILs to do good: donating their NIL earnings to causes that are important to them, partnering with nonprofit organizations, and even creating their own nonprofits.

University of Nebraska volleyball player Lexi Sun signed a deal with a volleyball apparel company, with some of the proceeds going to a nonprofit sports psychology organization. Shortly before Thanksgiving, University of Michigan running back Blake Corum used his NIL earnings to donate 100 turkeys to people in need, and other organizations in the community matched his donation and provided other goods.

University of Pittsburgh quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Kenny Pickett has a few NIL partnerships. Two of them, a trucking company and an apparel company, collaborated to produce “Pickett’s Partners” T-shirts, with all the proceeds going to another of his partners: the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania.

Pickett spent a lot of time at a Boys & Girls Club in New Jersey growing up, and he wanted to give back, explains Scott Koskoski, vice president of advancement for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. “His Boys & Girls Club experience really stuck with him,” Koskoski says. “In the advent of the NIL era, Kenny very quickly reached out to us … and expressed a desire to be a part of the Boys & Girls Clubs here in Pittsburgh.”

Pickett visited summer day campers and gave them T-shirts while also drawing attention to the T-shirts for sale. Months later, Koskoski says, “our youth have not forgotten that. They still tell the story of the day Kenny Pickett came to the clubhouse.”

When NIL deals opened up for him, Pickett went back to his roots. “Kenny is far from the first student-athlete to walk into a Boys & Girls Club somewhere in the country and volunteer,” Koskoski says. “But NIL offers student-athletes the opportunity to formalize that, and organize that, and to put a brand around it. And from that brand can come real resources that can move missions forward.”

Related: Global Sport Institute partners with Sun Devil Athletics to educate athletes on entrepreneurship

As the NIL era matures, more student-athletes are likely to partner with community organizations, says Jeff Kunowski, associate director of innovation programs with Arizona State University’s Global Sport Institute and J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute. “As athletes have a better understanding of how they can maximize their exposure and utilize their branding for good, I think that’ll make it easier and make it more widespread,” he says.

These two ASU institutes support students as they pursue entrepreneurial endeavors, navigate careers, and create positive social impact. “It’s almost shocking how many of the student-athletes I’ve talked to want to give back to the community or see how they might be able to leverage their likeness and partner with an organization that’s already doing good in the community,” Kunowski says.

A ‘Capacity of Service’ Among Young Athletes

The current generation of student-athletes may have values and priorities that differ from those of their older counterparts when it comes to giving back and taking action on societal issues. A BBMG and GlobeScan survey found that Generation Z is three times more likely than previous generations to say that the purpose of business is to “serve communities and society” rather than to “make good products and services,” and they expect brands to advocate or speak out on pressing issues.

“I think they see their personal success being tied into some capacity of service,” says Alonzo Jones, associate athletic director for inclusion and championship life with ASU’s Sun Devil Athletics. That may take the shape of traditional community service or getting more deeply involved in issues they’ve been working through, including racial unrest, political engagement, or the COVID-19 pandemic, he says. “I think young people are trying to step up. We see an increase in activism. We see an increase in political engagement. … It makes sense to me that they want to do more things in the space of social justice and/or direct service to their fellow human beings.”

When NIL rules changed last summer, most of the discussion centered on “some very high-profile student athletes, men and women, and some very lucrative deals,” Jones says. “And good for them. But that won’t be everyone’s story.” So far, lower-profile student-athletes have been striking up NIL partnerships as well. Of the 26 sports at ASU, 19 have seen at least one athlete NIL deal, says Marcus Williams, associate athletic director with Sun Devil Athletics. The university’s student-athletes have nearly 150 deals, and most of them are for marketing products through social media.

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Because NIL policy has been around for only a few months, schools and athletes have had a steep learning curve. The process has included educating athletes about tax implications of sponsorships, intellectual property issues, use of the school’s NIL platform, and many other topics, Williams says.

While college athletes have long volunteered for and donated to good causes, the next step is using their NILs to do more, Williams says. “The sky’s the limit, as far as what our students can do in that regard,” he says.

Koskoski agrees. “The NCAA has handed them a tool to be able to organize that effort and to brand that effort, and then to put it to use for good,” Koskoski says. “Kenny (Pickett) pioneered how a student-athlete can take the NIL opportunities and be philanthropic and activate generosity with it.”

In the future, Jones says, he expects to see more athletes connect their NILs with philanthropy and social causes. “Young people today have a sophistication that includes a mindfulness of bettering the society,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

When Gibbons first heard about NIL rules changes, the image that came to his mind was a starting quarterback showing up at practice one day wearing a Rolex watch and driving a brand-new Porsche from the dealership that sponsored him. Gibbons wondered how the rest of his team would feel about that. “After that point,” he says, “I decided to just do good and give everything that I could possibly give to those people that are in need and to try to help other athletes do that.”

The result of those efforts, Gibbons says, have “brought a lot of greater meaning to my life. It’s allowed me to focus on things that actually matter and make an impact in my world, with being able to raise funds through one of the greatest fan bases in all of sports – college football.”

Monthly Issue

NIL & the Future of College Sports

College sports changed dramatically this year with new NCAA rules allowing athletes to profit from their names, images, and likenesses (NILs). For athlete empowerment advocates, it was a major victory—one that could prompt further reform and reorganization across the landscape of intercollegiate athletics.

How has NIL already impacted college sports, and what is on the horizon for campuses and their communities around the United States?