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Jordan Horston sat at a table in the back of Orange Mountain Designs, signing her name across a bright orange background of a photo of herself, staring and pointing back at her. After each autograph, she carefully drew a triangle with an exclamation point inside: a caution sign.
“You want to hear the real story? Or like, what I tell people?” she asked.
The real story goes like this, according to Horston.
Last season, the Tennessee Lady Vols upset Arkansas in their first SEC game after losing to the Razorbacks the season before. In the rush and elation of the locker room celebration, Horston grabbed the first thing she saw and started swinging it around – it just so happened to be a caution sign, the kind that sits on wet floors.
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The bright yellow sign quickly became part of Horston’s brand and a rally symbol for Lady Vol fans.
The yellow caution sign is part of the latest T-shirt design at OMD as part of Horston's and Tamari Key's name, image and likeness deal. But NIL is about more than T-shirts for Horston and Key. The opportunity is about building relationships and brands, as well as advocating for other Black women in basketball.
A fitting Lady Vol NIL deal
Terri Holder opened OMD in 2008, and has thrived for 13 years exclusively selling Lady Vol gear.
Holder, a cancer survivor, first got into making T-shirts for Holly Warlick and Nikki Fargas’ Cruisin’ for a Cause motorcycle rides to raise funds and awareness for a cure for breast cancer. When legendary Tennessee coach Pat Summitt saw Holder’s T-shirts, she approached her about doing merchandise to promote the Lady Vols logo.
“Pat was always on the forefront,” Holder said. “If it's going to promote the women's basketball game, if it's going to make things better, let's do it."
Summitt was an advocate for all women in basketball and recruited the first Black players to play at Tennessee, and Holder believes Summitt, who died in 2016, would be on the forefront of NIL opportunities for her players if she were still coaching.
The disparities in prominent NIL deals between white and Black women's basketball players is glaring in the first season of player endorsements. While UConn's Paige Bueckers, the first athlete to sign with Gatorade, has earned the attention for her talent and skill after a historically dominant freshman season, other top players, especially those who are Black, did not reap the same rewards.
Kentucky's Rhyne Howard, Oregon's NaLyssa Smith and Michigan's Naz Hillmon are among the favorites to go No. 1 overall in the WNBA draft, but their NIL deals pale in comparison to Bueckers, who is white. Smith and Hillmon partnered with Cameo and Howard has a local partnership with Direct Auto Insurance.
“I feel like people are scared to talk about it, that's why we can never get anywhere," Horston said. "All we can do is just keep trying to push for change. There’s so many great people out here, no matter what their gender is, or race is, it’s about who the person is, and I wish people could see that."
The NIL era is a microcosm of society
Horston has focused on building her brand that she started in high school, centered around advocating for women and mental health.
“I want to be able to use my platform, so I just feel like it's finally coming true, I'm in the right spot,” Horston said. “I'm using my voice in the right way.”
Part of using her voice the right way includes speaking up about the disparity in NIL deals.
“It's advocating for Black student-athletes, because it's showing that we can do this, like, forget what everybody thinks ... We're just as capable as anybody else," Horston said.
Besides Bueckers, the biggest endorsements in women’s college basketball have involved white players. Fresno State’s Haley and Hanna Cavinder’s partnership with Boost Mobile was one of the first NIL deals in the summer and the twins also signed deals with SoFi, Eastbay and WWE.
Tennessee assistant professor Guy Harrison, whose research focuses on gender and race in sports media, said the NIL era is a microcosm of how society views Black women. A negative stigma has existed societally around the marketability of Black athletes, especially Black women, and Harrison said companies still view marketing Black women as catering to a niche audience.
"I do also think the media and corporations have sort of fed that, too, by not playing their part in publicizing or promoting Black women in the sports that they play," Harrison said. "It's all kind of a vicious cycle ... Black women don't have – aren't given the attention, so sponsors and the media don't think that there is an audience or market there.
"But because they never give them a market or audience, it doesn't develop. It's kind of like women's sports in general."
Media coverage – even of the WNBA – contributes to the racial bias. A quick Google search of Bueckers' NIL deals pulls up over 10 pages of stories. A search for NIL deals for South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, an early player of the year candidate, and you'll get fewer than 10 stories total on her deals.
"(NIL deals) favor white women, because socially and in society at large, that has been the standard – that all women have to appear to be a white, hyper-feminine, heterosexual woman in order to get attention or preferential treatment," Harrison said. "It's definitely social, it's definitely political – or at least as much as one can think that race is a political thing. It's not just someone's performance on the court."
Building connections through NIL
One of the first NIL events Horston and Key did was a surprise trip to William Blount High School in Maryville in the summer. With all the possibilities of the NIL changes, players could run camps in the offseason, a possibility Horston looks forward to.
“I love kids. I always said I wanted to be a coach one day,” Horston said. “I feel like me being able to show them what I went through and lead them in the right direction and help somebody – it's very inspiring. I always dreamed of doing that.”
The money from NIL deals is nice, but Key said it’s not only about the money. It’s about building connections and relationships, too.
“I feel like I value creating relationships most in my life, loyalty and just appreciating people that you have around you,” Key said. “I feel like that's a really important part for it for us and then for the athletes after us who are going to be able to benefit from this. We're just excited to see where it can go in future, too.”
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Behind Tennessee Lady Vols Jordan Horston and Tamari Key's NIL deal