Back when Ralston Turner was playing basketball at N.C. State, he remembers seeing fans in “Beard Gang” T-shirts that paid homage to his facially hirsute teammate Richard Howell.
Turner is a financial adviser with Morgan Stanley in Raleigh now, so his mind naturally veers to the monetary, but those shirts bubbled back to the top of his mind on Wednesday, the so-called NIL Eve, as the NCAA approved a policy that would allow athletes to capitalize on their name, image and likeness rights beginning Thursday.
In North Carolina, where there’s no state law, individual schools will set the boundaries for their athletes, but it basically means any college athlete can now do advertisements or endorsements and monetize their social-media accounts without losing their eligibility as they would have in the past.
Or sell T-shirts.
“That could have been his brand,” Turner said. “He could be making money, looking around PNC and seeing that Beard Gang merchandise. If you’re Richard Howell, pushing out T-shirts and merchandise — yo, you could make a pretty penny.”
Thursday is a new day for college sports as we know it. For the first time, athletes won’t be stopped from capitalizing on their NIL rights. The ways to do that will be limited only to athletes’ imaginations, within the guidelines set by their schools. Those were just being conveyed to athletes here on Wednesday night; the NCAA’s new rules prohibit players being paid for performance or as a “recruiting inducement” and some schools may choose to draw lines between athletes and boosters.
But in any case, it has been a long time coming.
“This is a big deal, specifically for athletes in Olympic sports or baseball that operate more on partial scholarships than they do on full scholarships,” said Peyton Barish, an N.C. State track and cross-country runner from Cary who is also a vocal critic of the NCAA. “It gives them the opportunity to potentially cover tuition, especially when the NCAA and Division I athletics demand so much of you, in terms of having to sacrifice your potential dream major or other sacrifices outside of athletics.”
So: What will an NIL world look like?
‘The possibilities are pretty infinite’
Most of the mass-media attention is focused on traditional advertisements and endorsements, like the kind professional athletes have. For some of the biggest names, a Trevor Lawrence or Zion Williamson, that may take the form of multimillion dollar national deals. Some star players may get smaller deals with local car dealers or restaurants.
Those are the concerns that North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham and others have expressed, that athletes will divert money that would normally go to the universities to themselves.
Most NIL deals, though, will be new money coming into the system. Athletes with large followings on TikTok and Instagram will be able to sell ads and collect money for sponsored posts without leaving the couch. Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz already trademarked a logo.
“You may see some more of that, guys pushing their personal brands out there,” Turner said. “It doesn’t have to come from standing out in front of a dealership.”
Barish suggested that N.C. State cross-country star Katelyn Tuohy, who has more than 80,000 Instagram followers, may end up making the most NIL money of any athlete on campus.
“That is the really cool thing about NIL, to some level,” Barish said. “The possibilities are pretty infinite when it comes to what you can do and how you can market yourself.”
Dave Harding wasn’t the biggest star when he was an offensive lineman at Duke, but it’s easy for him to see now ways he could have converted even his name and image into income. He got to know boosters who could have brought him into real-estate deals as a limited partner and golf pros who would have traded free golf or range balls for appearances.
“It’s just crazy for me thinking about this to go from something you never thought about — not only was it not an option, it would get you in trouble, disqualify you — to now you can do this,” said Harding, who runs the Blue Devil Network at his alma mater. “It’s open season. Go figure it out.”
As a group, the offensive line would go out to eat at local restaurants on Thick Thursdays and it became kind of a thing. People would show up to watch the big boys eat. Now, they could partner with different restaurants, promote their visits on social media, even sell T-shirts — and get paid for all of it.
“Leverage your local celebrity,” Harding said. “Many of these offensive linemen will never be more popular than this four- or five-year span in college. Leverage that good smile. You like to eat ribs, why not try to find a way to put things together?”
Kevin Reddick is about to celebrate a year as the owner of his own business in Raleigh, a mobile personal training company called InfraRED Elite, but he’s only eight years removed from playing linebacker at North Carolina. He worries that athletes could get distracted from their teams or their academics by their side businesses, but he also sees a wide range of opportunities for them based on his experience in Chapel Hill.
“You might be able to do signatures, maybe at a dealership, or doing a signing at one of the stores on Franklin Street,” Reddick said. “Maybe somebody is paying them to come to Top of the Hill, just like the radio show we used to do back in the day. That would probably get more student-athletes engaged for sure.”
What would it have taken to get him off the couch back then? Not much. Maybe $250 to show up somewhere, Reddick said. He wasn’t the only athlete he knew at North Carolina who could have used a little extra pocket money. Would he potentially employ a few UNC football stars as trainers during the offseason to drum up business? He might. That’s something he could do now without worrying about their eligibility.
“We’ll just have to see it all play out, but I am all for it,” Reddick said. “Everybody who’s been to college knows that unless you come from a well-off family, I would say 50-60 percent of college students are broke. You’ve got to call home for money or live off that financial aid, Pell Grant, whatever. Student-athletes get a lot more money than they got back when I was playing, but also the cost of living has gone up just a tad.”
There are more pitfalls to this than the concerns Reddick raised about time management, and there are going to be growing pains. Former N.C. Supreme Court justice Bob Orr has represented several college athletes in lawsuits against the NCAA, and he can see the clouds of uncertainty surrounding NIL as it becomes a reality.
As one example, both Turner and Harding said they got to know countless boosters during their time as players and never had a thought to ask them about business opportunities. They both said they would now.
So, Orr asked, could North Carolina booster Art Pope hire basketball player Armando Bacot to do ads for his discount stores? That’s not against the NCAA’s policy, but it could be against North Carolina’s own policy. And if a school does reject a player’s NIL deal, what are the grounds for recourse?
“I just have so little faith in (NCAA president) Mark Emmert and that crew,” Orr said. “You just don’t want to see kids step on land mines thinking what they’re doing is OK, or what you and I think should be OK and the school and the NCAA think it’s not.”
Either way, this is a change that has been coming for a long time and the smartest athletes have been thinking about it. The college-sports world is awash in rumors of endorsement and sponsorship deals that were consummated long ago and will only be announced Thursday.
“Just because (Thursday) happens, the ground has been moving beneath us for a while,” Turner said. “It’s just now coming out.”