Athletes want to know more about name, image and likeness. Duke track star helps educate them at inaugural summit.

20 June 2022

— Duke track athlete Emily Cole has been building her social media presence since high school. With the encouragement of her older sister, a country music singer, Cole began sharing behind-the-scenes aspects of her training regime, eating habits and life as a student-athlete, before the NCAA changed its rules surrounding name, image and likeness.

“So I’m really grateful that I was able to have that head start,” Cole told WRAL News. “This year everything kind of blew up.”

Cole, who earned second-team All-America honors in the steeplechase this month, was among more than 400 college athletes and administrators at the inaugural NIL Summit at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. She served as a panelist on a session about financial literacy. The NCAA allowed athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL) on July 1, a drastic rule change that led to unprecedented opportunities for athletes such as Cole.

Cole, who has more than 7.2 million likes and more than 160,000 fans on short-form video app TikTok, signed deals with tax prep company H&R Block and powdered beet concentrate BeetElite. In January, she won $10,000 in a TikTok challenge by Icon Source, an athlete marketing company. Her book The Player’s Plate is set to publish in September. It is part cookbook, part how-to guide for athletes in training.

“It really helps me tie in a lot of concepts in the book, which is: It’s not just about what’s physically on your plate, but also the saying of not having too much on your plate with life in general,” said Cole, who interviewed several dietitians and Olympic champions for the book.

“I know that as athletes we have a lot of societal and psychological pressures that can come with trying to find your optimal fuel as well. Those are the things I talk about in the book.”

Cole went viral in 2021 when she posted a video seeking a date for a college formal event. Ohio State lacrosse player Mitchell Pehlke responded, and the two became social media sensations, raising Cole’s follower totals.

“I’m just really grateful I was able to have that opportunity, get to meet him and also get to have my platform shared through that. That’s not what I want to focus on,” said Cole, a computer science major from Houston. “Now I get to share my journey with sports nutrition and athletics and running because that helped me grow a little bit more.”

‘Curious’ and ‘clueless’

Other athletes came to Atlanta seeking education and opportunities in the new NIL space. There were water polo players from Fordham and rowers from Stanford. Some schools, such as Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State, brought up to 10 athletes and several administrators to the event.

The three-day event kicked off with a formal NIL awards ceremony and continued with sessions about a variety of topics. Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, Super Bowl champion Jerome Bettis and WWE superstar Paul “Triple H” Levesque were among the speakers.

“There’s a lot of student athletes here from a lot of different places, and they’re just as curious as I am,” said UNC football tight end Kamari Morales. “They’re just as clueless as I am about certain things and they’re just as curious.”

Morales said he has done some paid autograph sessions under the new NIL rules. But he’s looking for more.

“It’s motivated me to get more active on social media,” he said. “It’s kind of hard. You might look at it as ‘this is cringe’ or ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this,’ but there are people out there that would love to see that content. So I’m definitely going to challenge myself to be more active on stuff like TikTok.”

In the year since NIL became a reality in college athletics, much of the focus has been on players getting recruiting inducements, largely through new collectives tied to schools, framed as NIL deals. The NCAA has said such inducements are still against the rules, but there is a lack of enforcement around it. The summit largely steered clear of that aspect of NIL. Instead it focused on athletes hoping to create a brand and find opportunities.

“A lot of people when they think about NIL, they keep thinking about pay-to-play. But that’s not the vibe we’re getting here,”North Carolina State football offensive lineman Tim McKay said. “It’s all about building a brand for yourself, marketing yourself and building something that lasts longer than your playing career.”

Several speakers told the athletes that there is value in their individual brands. Cole runs cross country and distance track events, hardly attention-grabbing college sporting events.

“Don’t be afraid to get started,” Cole said. “No matter how few followers you have or how small you think you’re platform is. … You’re going to feel awkward when you start talking to a camera and making videos that you’re putting out for who knows who is going to see. And so you’ve got to really figure out what you’re most comfortable doing and what avenues you can be yourself the most in and really capitalize on that.

“And people will love to see your story.”

Schools ramp up

Jim Cavale is the chief executive of INFLCR, pronounced “influencer,” which is owned by Durham-based Teamworks. INFLCR, a main sponsor of the summit, is contracted with more than 200 NCAA Division I schools — including Duke, UNC and N.C. State — to provide an app and other software services to aid in name, image and likeness. The company makes products to allow athletes to share images and videos to their social media. It also makes compliance products and a marketplace to allow businesses and athletes to connect.

“It’s isolated to certain sports and even within those sports, just certain athletes,” Cavale said of the reported big dollar deals for recruits and transfers. “That’s not the broader NIL. That’s more of a one-, two-, three-percent isolation part of NIL.”

A common theme throughout the event was the athletes wanting more information, guidance, expertise and help with navigating name, image and likeness. Schools have responded to the new rules, as well as differing state laws and minimal NCAA guidance, in a variety of ways. Duke’s men’s basketball program recently hired former Nike marketing executive Rachel Baker as its first general manager to assist athletes with NIL and branding.

Cavale, a former Division II college baseball player, said he felt strongly that big change was coming to college sports, largely through social media. He signed up several programs, including Kentucky and Auburn, to use their software to give athletes access to school-produced content, allowing them to share it on social media boosting their own brands and the school’s recruiting efforts.

As for where NIL is headed? Cavale envisions a variety of changes to come — unionization or collective bargaining at some point, changes to college athletics structure, national regulations, a better sense of the marketplace by companies and athletes. One thing he is certain will happen: more help.

“Schools will have more resources to support student athletes,” he said. “Not necessarily control them, but support them.”

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