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For many student-athletes, NIL has made social media a must

This is the third part of a special CNHI series of stories examining the impact of social media on college athletes.

Until recently, there was little financial loss or gain attached to student-athlete participation in social media.

Sure, a really savvy athlete could build their brand with a creative social media feed, but it was a difficult space to make headway in. For the most part, student-athletes’ social-media feeds were no different than anyone else’s. They were a function of individual expression and nothing more.

That’s no longer the case. With the seismic shift in the way college sports operate in the last half-decade, social media has become a necessity for student-athletes if they want to utilize the newest tool at their disposal.

Name, image and likeness (NIL).

NIL has revolutionized college athletics. Athletes are no longer constrained in their ability to monetize their appeal. Collectives pay them directly to keep athletes at a certain school while companies now have the opportunity to use college athletes in endorsements.

It’s a financial boon, but where social media comes in is it’s a prime way for student-athletes to build their individual brand. They can take advantage of the so-called “creator” or “influencer economy” where there are riches for those who can successfully exploit social-media outlets.

LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne is just one of the athletes who have built a social media empire that goes beyond their athletic exploits.

“NIL opened the floodgates because now social media is going to be one of the primary ways in which student-athletes are promoting themselves,” Purdue assistant director of counseling and sports psychologist Kelsey Dawson said.

It’s a sea change for athletes. Though today’s college athletes grew up with social media, most did not envision a future in which social media was important to their financial well-being in tandem with success in their sport.

“When it first started, prior to NIL, I was never the biggest social-media person. I’d post once or twice a year,” said South Carolina forward Aliyah Boston during the NCAA Tournament. Boston was later picked first overall in April’s WNBA Draft by the Indiana Fever. “When NIL was talked about coming about, my mom and dad were like, ‘Aliyah, you’ve got to get active.’ You want people to see your brand and to see who you are.

“Now that’s it’s started, I’ve adjusted to it a lot. I’ve honestly been able to be myself. I pride myself in not changing myself because I want to get certain brand deals. I’ve always been who I am.”

For the media-savvy Boston, that adjustment comes easy, but it’s not as simple for athletes who have a higher degree of social anxiety or who are just naturally shy.

“The only negative thing is there’s a direct correlation between who has the most followers, and some girls don’t have that type of personality. It’s hard for them to get those deals that other big names are getting. You can say it’s a big popularity contest,” Maryland guard Brinae Alexander said.

It isn’t just self-expectation which drives the pressure to participate on social media for NIL purposes. The schools -- who don’t pay for NIL, but who benefit from the exposure their athletes receive -- mildly encourage players to participate in the social-media space.

Some schools even promote their athletes’ social-media feeds. Maryland’s women’s basketball media notes listed every player's social-media links. Other schools list social-media links on their online rosters.

“It’s a love-hate relationship with NIL. I believe in building your brand and making a legacy of yourself, and there’s money out there, not only through NIL deals but through TikToc and being famous on there for being a content creator. I think it’s great, but at the same time, if you’re not into social media, t’s hard to get into,” Alexander said.

From a coaches’ point of view, there are some positive aspects to the NIL-social media connection.

South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley believes adding a monetary aspect to players’ social-media presence serves a sort of self-policing effect. In her estimation, a player is less likely to post something inflammatory if they might incur a financial penalty for it.

“When NIL comes around, that polices (social-media messaging) because they have a brand. They have a name, image and likeness that they're trying to uphold because they are the faces of some corporations. Losing money because of what they post is not something I think they want to be party to,” Staley said.

Whether an athlete is comfortable in their social media skin or whether they struggle with it, NIL is not likely going away. It’s yet another layer of their social-media experience that can make them money but that can also have mental-health ramifications.

“(Student-athletes) make deals and profit off of their name, image and likeness, so it just increases how often they’re on their phone interacting, whether it’s posting or messaging. It’s created the need to always be on there,” Dawson said.

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