College Athlete NIL Education Pits Faculty Against Consultants

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Having earlier this year ditched its “A Player’s Program” men’s basketball moniker, the University of Arizona’s athletic department is now looking to define itself—at the dawning of college sports’ name, image and likeness era—as a professor’s program.

While scores of universities have announced recent partnerships with third-party companies to provide athlete NIL education, Arizona is keeping the teaching in-house, having hatched its own learning platform, Arizona EDGE, through a joint collaboration between the university’s athletics department, law school and Eller College of Management.

In an interview, Joe Carella, Arizona’s assistant dean of executive education, said the platform, slated for a mid-July launch, is being readied for export beyond the Grand Canyon State. “My intention is to sell the program to other universities,” Carella said.

Carella noted EDGE’s intellectual property, and whatever future revenue it may derive from it, ultimately belongs to the school. An outline of the curriculum, shared with Sportico, features nine components, from “Driving Social Media Engagement” to “The Basics of Business Deals.”

In vouching for the virtues of Arizona’s homegrown offering, Carella argues that the prerogatives of college educators are inherently more in line with the interest of students, be they athletes or artists.

“Consultants, in general, have in some ways a vested interest in certain athletes more than others,” said Carella, who has previously done consulting work with the NFL and the London 2012 Olympics. “We have a duty of care toward these individuals that we need to make sure we pursue. So, from a certain perspective there is more of a desire to see these students flourish and succeed. I question whether, for example, someone who has a long-term financial interest in the success of a student can be a good steward of their development, and that is the concern I have with consultancies.”

Arizona’s senior associate athletic director Brent Blaylock sees athlete NIL education as an extension of intercollegiate competition.

“What we wanted was to have an opportunity to flex the muscles of the institution,” Blaylock said. “Every school always puts out there, ‘This is why our school is the best,’ and, ‘We can do this,’ and, ‘We can do that.’ Well, this is the time to show it. This is the place for institutions to get competitive, to create these points of differentiation among themselves….We didn’t want to be Client 17 of 65.”

For now, Arizona’s go-it-alone approach stands out in a sea of athletic department press releases announcing the latest partnership with companies like Opendorse, INFLCR and Altius.

This week, the University of North Carolina announced that it had hired three outside firms, Altius, COMPASS and INFLCR, to anchor its new LAUNCH program, which promises to “teach Tar Heels how to elevate their platform and provide tools to enhance their personal brand.”

Asked why UNC—which has U.S. News and World Report’s seventh-ranked undergraduate business school—went off campus, athletics spokesperson Robbi Pickeral Evans told Sportico: “As our LAUNCH program evolves, we will of course seek partnerships across our University, and we will continue to coordinate with our Leadership Academy. There are still many questions and nuances related to NIL, and all of these partnerships will allow us to expand the program, as needed.”

How schools decide to provide their NIL instruction raises many larger questions about name, image and likeness reform, including the fundamental role institutions should play in the outside income pursuits of college athletes.

A number of state NIL laws vacillate on this point, containing provisions that require schools to teach financial literacy and business basics to their athletes, while also insisting that university employees refrain from doing anything that would directly lead to an athlete making money.

The laws in Florida and Georgia, among those set to go into effect July 1, both stipulate that the mandatory financial workshops for athletes “not include any marketing, advertising, referral, or solicitation by providers of financial products or services.”

While NIL has cultivated a new crop of businesses offering outside assistance to athletic departments, it comes at the same time that some schools are beginning to rethink which responsibilities to outsource. That includes Nebraska recently moving its entire athletic multimedia rights operation in-house. Can’t most schools find the core competencies for teaching NIL facts of life on campus?

“Part of our value prop and that of all the third parties is the schools live and breathe their campus,” said Altius CEO Casey Schwab. “They don’t live and breathe the country.”

Sarah Goforth, executive director of Arkansas’ Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, echoed Carella’s point about educators being best-positioned to educate college athletes on their personality rights.

“I would say if we are not considering it our obligation to serve them better than any other entity, then we are not fulfilling our mission of the university,” Goforth said. “It is literally our job to do this.”

Last month, Arkansas unveiled its NIL program, Flagship, which involves both Goforth’s office, the university’s Walton College of Business and Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, as well as marketing company Captiv8, NIL monitoring platform NOCAP Sports and INFLCR, with which the school had a preexisting content management relationship.

Goforth has been part of an eight-person university task force that meets every Friday to discuss the NIL educational piece of Flagship, which so far consists of two, five-week summer cohorts—the first of which is currently underway—and an opt-in program during the fall.

“We chose very deliberately to go in-house,” said Jon Fagg, Arkansas’ deputy AD. “We wanted to make the best program we could for the University of Arkansas student-athletes, not student-athletes [in general].”

Added Fagg, “It is impossible for these third parties to understand our kids more than we do, if we invest time and energy in it.”

For now, much of Flagship has fallen on the shoulders of Goforth.

“What I am doing now is not sustainable, which is always the case when we are doing a pilot,” said Goforth. “I am not going to outsource this to a contractor. I am here to learn. I am definitely stretched this summer.”

Goforth says the long-term plan is to scale the program so that every Arkansas athlete can participate between their freshman and sophomore years.

“If we do that, it will require more funding,” she said, “but people and businesses in this community love sports, and I will fundraise my head off.”

Meanwhile, another SEC school, Tennessee, is developing a credit-bearing NIL survey course in its Haslam College of Business, which will be taught by a rotating cast of at least 10 faculty members. While the course will be open to all students, Lane Morris, the business school’s associate dean, said that there will be “strong encouragement” for athletes to take it.

Last year, Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins penned a well-circulated opinion piece, calling for universities to start offering majors in college sports.

Dan Rascher, a sports management professor at the University of San Francisco, sees Tennessee’s NIL course as “the nose under the tent” of that larger proposition.

At Texas, the Longhorns athletic department has announced plans to partner with UT’s business and communication schools as part of its LEVERAGE NIL program.

“We felt very strongly in terms of being competent in our internal resources and staff, both within athletics department and on campus, to be able to provide some really effective name, image and likeness support and education,” said Arin Dunn, Texas’ director of student-athlete development.

Texas has also contracted with Altius, which Dunn said is serving as an athletic department resource for best practices and NIL-related legal questions.

To that end, Schwab insists his company is not looking to replace campus resources with its services.

“We are not arrogant or naive enough to come in as an outsider to any of these universities and say, ‘Get out of our way, we have a boilerplate education for NIL,’” Schwab said. “We are looking at what resources do you have on campus and maybe we can fill in some of the gaps.”

For now, Arizona’s Blaylock expresses confidence that the school can cover the gaps when they emerge.

“We know for sure we will always be able to work with the institution,” Blaylock said. “We don’t know what we will be able to do with these third parties.”

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