Lauren Hoselton was a walk-on, non-scholarship athlete soon to begin her fifth-year season on the Ole Miss women’s track and field team when they called the student-athletes into a meeting. Sitting in a room alongside her fellow teammates and all of the other 20-something-year-old athletes, administration explained that the collegiate athlete experience as they knew it would be changing. A new interim policy would now allow them to monetize their name, image and likeness.
On July 1 of 2021, the NCAA’s monumental “NIL” policy went into effect. As soon as it became official, the face of college athletics began to change. And that policy didn’t just transform the world of college sports, but also the lives of the athletes who play them. In the 16 months following the announcement, Hoselton became one of the university’s most prominent NIL athletes — but solely as a result of her own hustle.
“I was in a room of, you know, ‘Matt Corrals,’ and they told us what (NIL) was and what you can and can’t do, but they never really told us how to do it,” Hoselton said. “In a room full of very Instagram-famous people, I was like, ‘That’s not me, so I have to figure out how I’m going to do this.’”
She immediately began devoting most of her limited free time to researching the ins-and-outs of the policy and how she could start using it to her advantage. Like the majority of the collegiate student-athlete population outside of the top 5% of performers, and playing a non-revenue sport, profiting off of her NIL was not going to come without her own hard work.
“When I say I spent hours, I mean hours reaching out to brands, figuring out templates that worked, what they liked to hear. I knew I had 5,000 followers, and there were athletes that had 25,000 followers, and I knew I needed to make myself stand out to some of these brands,” Hoselton said.
The purpose of implementing NIL was to allow student-athletes to finally reap rewards for how much their performance financially supported their respective schools, something unprecedented in college athletics. Since implementation, student-athletes now live in an entirely different environment. While schools cannot pay players directly, they can now be compensated through other avenues.
Performance has always been important, but now there is an added level — how well you play not only impacts your school, but also how much money you can make individually and how much money you make can now also have an impact on how well you play.
“All of their actions and everything means more than before — of course, you’re always representing your university and school, but now, there’s just a lot more to it. You’re making money off of your name now,” Hoselton said. “And I mean, we’ve seen it with athletes at other schools, when you start making money like this, even your sport could start to be a little less appealing.”
Though much of the public interpreted the introduction of NIL to mean “easy-money” for student-athletes, that wasn’t the case for most. In the months following the policy’s release, those that wanted to truly profit off of NIL had to hustle to create an individual brand for themselves on top of practices, competitions, a social life and school. Athletes that didn’t make that commitment have not seen the benefits NIL promised, some even feeling further isolated in the policy’s wake.
M’Leah Lambdin is sophomore student-athlete on the Ole Miss women’s rifle team — a team that returned to Oxford fourth in the NCAA last year, consistently competes for best in the nation and has earned countless awards and accolades. Lambdin herself has had major success on an individual competition level. But despite the monumental achievement and notoriety the program has brought to the university, NIL has not been the lucrative addition to the lives of the rifle athletes that it has been for other sports.
Lambdin says one of the best parts of their NIL deal with the Quarters at Oxford is how easy it is on the student-athlete end. According to her, the time commitment for some athletes is one of the biggest reasons many haven’t capitalized on their NIL — well, that and fear of rejection.
But these fears only come when there are realistic expectations for potential deals, and that isn’t the case for the rest of the rifle team, and many other teams on campus.
“I know the whole team really feels like it’s pretty hard for us to get (NIL deals) because we’re not a televised sport, and, of course, we’re a women’s sport,” Lambdin said. “We don’t have the same amount of backing as football in the South.”
So Lambdin and her teammates are left in limbo, living out the part of NIL that few seem to talk about: the disparity.
“I feel like it’s just more frustrating that we constantly hear about NIL, and everyone says, like, ‘Oh, it’s so easy — just ask for a deal.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, but then you have to write up a contract, if you can get it approved by compliance. And if compliance doesn’t approve it, you have to rewrite a contract.’ There’s just so much extra work if you’re not actively being sought out for a NIL deal,” she said.
To help athletes navigate the constantly changing landscape of NIL legislation and provide a way for universities to still profit, collectives were born.
A collective, according to an article on JD Supra, is a business entity that “supporters of a school’s athletic teams (not the schools themselves), form under state laws to generate and pool revenue, which the collectives use to fund NIL opportunities for college athletes at particular schools who opt-in and avail themselves of the collective’s help and efforts to monetize their NIL.”
A few months ago, NIL guidelines were released that prevented athletic boosters from directly paying student-athletes in an attempt to block unfair funding, confirming that the birth of NIL did not mean the death of rules against “pay-for-play.” As a potential solution, or loophole, the published guidelines allowed for universities to communicate and coordinate with “third party entities” (collectives), intensifying the controlling role of collectives.
In January 2022, the Grove Collective entered the conversation in Oxford, created to help athletes with the legal side of NIL in the aspects of representation and negotiation. Their mission is to “do NIL the right way and create a program worthy of student athletes who give their all for Ole Miss.” Their message promotes sentiments of eliminating disparity between NIL representation in different sports by helping athletes get more NIL exposure through their network.
Walker Jones, former linebacker for the Rebels from 1994-1998, now helps lead the Grove Collective.
“It’s really creating opportunities, enhancing the opportunities and then protecting them once they do enter the world of NIL,” Jones said. “That’s the kind of role the Grove Collective plays in working with our athletes.”
The Grove Collective is supported by a pool of donors, and the collected donations are what the collective uses to coordinate NIL opportunities for the athletes. After the collective finds a deal, they handle the agreement, take a percentage of the profit, handle taxes and then the athletes get their share.
The invention of the Grove Collective has also transformed the financial backing of the university. Money from boosters given to Ole Miss athletics once went directly toward benefitting athletics as a whole. With the collective now established through NIL, a vehicle exists that can funnel funding directly into providing financial incentives to individual athletes. The university’s most recent capital campaign, “CHAMPIONS. NOW.” was even put on hold so that funding could be focused on raising money for NIL through the collective, providing the university with more assets to entice athletes with how much individual profit they can make.
“We are benefiting from the fact that the university has kind of put a pause on it,” Jones said. “We want (donors) to understand that they need to give to both the university and the collective, and we wanted to set it as a collaborative effort… we want to provide a one stop shop.”
Ole Miss is just one of many schools who have chosen to shift their focus towards upping their NIL game, and funding, hoping to draw in better athletes with more money. What once was a loophole that led to decades of infamous NCAA fines, is now a wide open door and something that can be done in the open as a result of the policy.
The policy is still in its early stages, official legislation is still nonexistent, policies are constantly changing, laws are different across every state, accessible resources are scarce and international students are still excluded from monetization through NIL. Each of these elements makes for a financial situation that is hard to regulate and easy to manipulate, all on the shoulders of college students.