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Same Song, Different Dance: Name, Image, and Likeness Disguised as College Athlete Empowerment

Same Song, Different Dance: Name, Image, and Likeness Disguised as College Athlete Empowerment

As Sunday night football returns to television sets and streaming platforms, football has seen a dramatic surge in viewership, thanks in part to Taylor Swift dating Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.

This seemingly harmless spotlight on Taylor brought an increase of about 2 million female viewers, but also brought the return of looming gender-related ideologies of sexualization seen throughout sports (like Travis Kelce calling out the NFL for overdoing it by ‘parading’ Taylor Swift).

But it’s not just pop stars that are hypersexualized.

At the college level, Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) has allowed college athletes to gain monetary compensation for their personal brands, and unfortunately, this has also included the hypersexualization of female college athletes.

Olivia Dunne, one of the top NIL earners as a gymnast, was featured in a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue that was attractive to some, while causing concern for others along the lines of sexualization.

Also consider the Cavinder twins, Haley and Hanna, who achieved major NIL success while playing basketball for the University of Miami Hurricanes. The twins were subject to a blatant hypersexualization by a writer, who wrote an article about them featuring their photo above a headline that reads, “The NCAA has a ‘hot girl’ problem.” The minimization of their accomplishments as basketball players and subsequent assumption that they were only successful for their looks is a glaring example of the sexualization faced by women athletes, and the twins took to social media to express their ‘disgust’ for the article.

This is such a major issue that other college stars like Haley Jones (Stanford Women’s Basketball Player) have vehemently stated that they have experienced sexualization–and have no interest in furthering that challenge by pursuing NIL deals that would require that scope. On the inadvertent misogyny, Jones most notably said, “You can go outside wearing sweatpants and a puffer jacket, and you’ll be sexualized,” and said, “I could be on a podcast, and it could just be my voice, and I’ll face the same thing. So, I think it will be there, no matter what you do or how you present yourself.”

For example, consider the ways that Legendary Stanford Women’s Basketball Coach Tara Vandeveer believes that NIL depictions focused on sex appeal is regressive for female athletics. Vandeveer, who is the winningest coach in Division I basketball history, said, “I guess sometimes we have this swinging pendulum, where we maybe take two steps forward, and then we take a step back. We’re fighting for all the opportunities to compete, to play, to have resources, to have facilities, to have coaches, and all the things that go with Olympic-caliber athletics.” She concluded with, “This is a step back.”

The stereotypically-regressive depictions (i.e., sexualized) of female athletes (i.e., physical attributes, body image, and sexuality) continue to be the focus of many NIL endorsements, which promote female athletes as sex objects as opposed to highlighting their athletic skill (akin to issues with Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue).

On July 1, 2021, California passed Senate Bill (SB) 206 and revolutionized the intercollegiate athletics compensation landscape that allows college athletes the ability to profit from the use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL).

We have studied the trajectory of NIL legislation, noting that current NIL freedoms came as a result of prior legal disputes against the NCAA (i.e., restrictions on athlete compensation were too strict and college athlete exploitation was of great concern). The NCAA reluctantly followed the lead of state legislations (first in California, now up to 31 others) and relinquished their stronghold on NIL–sort of.

College athletes can now utilize ‘the equalizer’ of NIL legislation to monetize their personal brands without fearing consequences related to their athletic eligibility, which inadvertently empowered them–but not necessarily along the lines of gender equity. NIL has been positioned as the great equalizer, but in practice has become another policy that appears to disparately impact female athletes.

A few examples of positive outcomes that NIL allows can be seen from some of the top athletes in the game. For example, Olivia Dunne (Louisiana State University gymnast) has a valuation of $3.2 million from endorsements with noteworthy brands like American Eagle and Vuori. Louisiana State University hooper Angel Reese also garnered $1.7 million, ranking as the highest-paid female college basketball player. UConn basketball star Paige Bueckers has also made a big swish with a valuation of $641K.

The NIL principles are simple: intercollegiate athletes are free to pursue activities that provide monetary value in the form of cash (and gifts) in exchange for the use of their NIL. The purpose of NIL was/is to provide all intercollegiate athletes the opportunity to access a particular area of the sport & entertainment market they were historically prohibited from entering. Additionally, NIL has sparked the creation of collectives independent from its institution and are structured in a way that provides the resources needed to support NIL activities.

A closer examination of the current state of the policy reveals some undesirable attributes (e.g., NIL ‘portal’ being called the ‘marketplace’). Although NIL has ignited some positive results for intercollegiate and high school athletes during its inaugural two-year period, we are now seeing some concerns with NIL and the ways that it may be reappropriating historic gender conversations related to sexualization.

“I think it could create a more uneven playing field. Because I think bigger companies are just going for, obviously, the bigger names, the bigger sports,” a women’s collegiate volleyball shared in an interview with one of us.

Although, a dark side of progress exists. Many corporations use college athletics as a breeding ground for brand visibility and exposure, giving room for exploitative/hypersexualized practices (i.e., swimsuit photoshoots and directed promotions that include stereotypical imagery) that marginalize certain groups of people. One could always claim that the trajectory of NIL as a sports business enterprise includes unbiased market behaviors that are ‘simply business’–but we cannot ignore the fact that ‘business as usual’ has historically served the elite at the expense of marginalized communities.

Corporations use the brand visibility of these well-known institutions to their advantage and in turn take this as an opportunity to perpetuate many of the problems (i.e., reducing academic practices to mere market calculations) faced by higher education in regard to the gatekeeping undercurrent of ‘opportunity.’

There’s no question that NIL opportunities have grown for college athletes; however, so have concerns about how corporations use their influence to depict college athletes, more specifically female athletes.

Thanks to the continued efforts of player empowerment by former college athletes like Ed O’Bannon and Shawne Alston, NIL is a policy that is here to stay. However, to avoid any further unequal treatment and exploitation of college athletes, future considerations for the policy could include Title IX adherence, along with a board of advisors that oversees NIL practices and decision-making. Perhaps even impose a vetting safeguard to protect against scams, as well as requiring women’s sport programs receive the same amount of NIL deals as the men’s sport programs–which is something that no current institutions are doing. There remain looming concerns regarding the utilization of Title IX, where the policy fits within NIL, and the apparent clash on the horizon at the nexus of NIL and Title IX.

‘The Clash’ of Title IX and NIL has quietly begun with the lack of equality regarding NIL offerings for men vs women athletes, as Title IX was enacted in 1972 to prevent sex-based discrimination regarding offerings of opportunity for any schools that receive federal funding. In fact, it was revealed at an NIL Summit that many of the ‘NIL collectives’ started by universities appear to be focused on opportunities for male athletes more than female athletes–with 95% of collective dollars going to males.

If we are not careful, the business of NIL could be headed down the same path that has led to the scandals, sexploitation, and academic misconduct that it was designed to alleviate.

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