LINCOLN — A week before the coronavirus shut down college athletics, the queens of NU’s campus surrounded a rectangle of sand tucked into the northwest corner of Nebraska’s football practice facility.
The Husker volleyball team was playing Wayne State on an indoor “beach.” Space limitations closed the match to the public, but an online broadcast allowed fans a peek at the team in its “offseason.” A beach volleyball trip to Hawaii — that would later be canceled — was two weeks away. An exhibition in Grand Island — also canceled — was more than a month away.
The virus was a blip on the radar. A talking point on TV.
The talk of that moment in college sports was a swift-moving conversation about name, image and likeness rights for student-athletes. Legislative bills were popping up — even in Nebraska — and NU was just days away from announcing its “Ready Now” initiative to prepare student-athletes for marketing and profiting off their personal brands. NU football players figured to benefit most from such legislation.
Husker volleyball players weren’t far behind, and one of them — Lexi Sun, who has 62,000 Instagram followers — even came up in a hearing at the Nebraska Legislature. It was, on March 5, news to her.
“We’re all super distant from that,” Sun said. “With the rules in the NCAA, they’ve made it clear we’re not allowed to make any money or get any privileges, or any of that.”
And, she said, she wasn’t too concerned about it. She could only control an upcoming senior season focused on winning a national title.
But if she could make money off her Instagram account? If Husker volleyball players — as recognizable on campus as quarterback Adrian Martinez — could endorse a product or two?
“I think girls at Nebraska would be making a ton of money,” she said.
“We would have a lot of opportunities in that, for sure.”
And that’s a good thing, right?
Sun paused in thought.
“I don’t know,” she said. “As of right now, athletes — especially in Nebraska — are blessed and get so many things just by being an athlete here. Getting the academic help and food and all the stuff we already get. Being on scholarship and getting school paid for, I think we already get so many things regular students don’t get.
“I wouldn’t say I’m looking for more money. I don’t think that we’re not already getting the things we need.
“So, yeah. It’s a little bit — interesting.”
Sun wasn’t alone in her nuanced opinion. While the debate has long seemed clearer among athlete advocates and, at times, media commentators, the athletes — locked into the daily grind of school, sport and sleep — fixate less on the topic.
Husker student-athletes, setter Nicklin Hames said, were fuzzy on some of the details this winter, when discussion started to heat up.
“I think a lot of the athletes thought, ‘All right, we’re going to start paying these athletes money,’ ” Hames said. “That’s what the athletes think. I did at first. I didn’t really know in depth about it.”
To be clear, it doesn’t mean pay to play. But there now appears to be significant movement toward athletes having the freedom to maximize profits on their name, image and likeness starting with the 2021 season. Say, appearing on a car dealership’s billboard.
In April, the NCAA recommended a broad “modernization” of the rules that, while making sure to untether the student-athlete’s marketing opportunities from the school itself, nevertheless opens the door to formal legislation and a vote in January. Nebraska, aware the sea change was happening before the announcement, sought to get ahead of the curve, and did. It announced a partnership with social media marketing platform Opendorse, run by ex-Husker football players Blake Lawrence and Adi Kunalic.
“Nebraska has always been a leader and an innovator in a lot of things,” football coach Scott Frost said. Four NU players had already released personal logos before spring football started as the kind of idea that could be leveraged in a new digital market. “I think that NIL decisions will benefit us greatly.”
Opendorse can counsel student- athletes on building their brands on social media platforms and the technology to send them opportunities so easy to embrace it may require only putting their thumb on a green button. Instagram, where influencers herd to promote lifestyle products and fashion, is one option. Twitter is another. YouTube is a third.
“This will be an opportunity for them to make money from a platform that doesn’t take them away from their schoolwork, team, practices,” Lawrence said in late March. “It will be quick and easy. A digital endorsement.”
Whereas much of the conversation about NIL has centered around a handful of college football and basketball players — the shoe deals they might get, the car dealerships theoretically lining up for them to peddle Chevy or Ford trucks, the booster who owns six gyms and would love a couple of faces on a billboard — online opportunities, easy to arrange and execute, are more likely to benefit a much broader number of student-athletes, said State Sen. Megan Hunt. The Omaha lawmaker introduced LB962 during the Unicameral session that was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Her bill would have given student-athletes NIL rights by 2023. The NCAA plans to have the framework two years before that.
Hunt, during an interview in late February, wouldn’t consider herself a big sports fan. And she acknowledged the years of advocacy and work State Sen. Ernie Chambers did in lobbying for student-athletes, especially football players, to get compensation for their gridiron labor. But she envisions a greater impact for, say, a Division II golfer at Chadron State who has a YouTube channel for lessons and golf tips. Or an Instagram influencer who uses their status as a college athlete to promote healthful lifestyle ideas. Or a student-athlete who, like Hunt, wants to start a business in college. Hunt did.
“These are adults,” Hunt said. “They have talent. We don’t prohibit computer science majors from writing code for pay, we don’t prohibit music majors from getting paid for performances, even though they may receive scholarships. And, with the bill, no one is arguing the players must be paid. The argument is that schools, and the NCAA, shouldn’t collude with the government to fix their compensation to zero dollars and zero cents.”
Will some athletes generate more NIL dollars than others? Certainly — and not necessarily because of their athletic performance, either.
“There’s a good chance that there’s a backup defensive player at Nebraska who doesn’t get interviewed by the media, who doesn’t get a lot of attention from fans, but online has a personality that can generate more revenue than a quarterback,” Lawrence said.
Coaches don’t receive the same salaries across schools or sports, Hunt said.
“Should we pay all coaches zero dollars because we’re worried that them taking anything at all will create inequality between Coach Frost and the Peru State football coach? Of course not,” Hunt said. “It doesn’t affect differences in player performance. It only affects who benefits from their talent. And under the current situation, all the differences in talent — between Husker players and D-III schools — go to the NCAA, not to the players.”
Others, including a senator who supported Hunt’s bill, have concerns about NIL modernization, especially as it relates to wealthy boosters who can afford to pay for multiple players to advertise products.
“The perfect analogous situation is dark money in politics,” said State Sen. Steve Lathrop in February. “As soon as you turn donors loose, man, watch out, because somebody’s going to think they’re the guy in the program because they’re paying the quarterback $50,000 a year to fetch cars on the car lot.”
Car dealers in bigger cities — bigger than the ones in Nebraska — would have more money to push, too, Lathrop said.
“The students-athletes will start to say, ‘Where can I make the most money?’ ” Lathrop said. He agreed that Hunt’s notion of “walking-around money” for student-athletes is a fair and good idea, and he supported her bill, as well. But NIL could open a door, he said, that makes it harder for programs in the state to compete with Texas or UCLA or Ohio State, which exist in giant cities and far more populous states.
Former UNL chancellor Harvey Perlman had the same view during an interview in February.
“It’s going to be a mess on the recruiting side, and I think Nebraska loses on that,” Perlman said. “You can talk about how the passion of Nebraska fans is pretty high — and I agree that it is — but I can assure you the passion in Columbus, Ohio, and South Bend, Indiana, is just as high, and some of those markets are a whole lot bigger than ours. Alumni bases are bigger.
“I think Nebraska is going to lose very significantly if this comes to pass.”
Perhaps. NU was struggling to beat Ohio State in most major sports — especially football and men’s basketball — well before NIL legislation. The Huskers’ recent football track record against Texas — without the legislation — wasn’t pretty, either.
When UT got its own Longhorn Network through ESPN, predictions of dominance were loud and long. It didn’t happen.
Texas football has foundered in the past decade with four losing seasons and two nine-win seasons. The basketball team hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2014. The women’s basketball team just fired its coach. LHN, and the money UT got from it, had little bearing on program success.
Husker volleyball, meanwhile, is the nation’s premier volleyball program and not near an ocean. It turns a small profit — a small miracle — thanks to night after night of sellouts at the Devaney Center. NU grabs the best players locally and also recruits nationally. Its players are role models and close to celebrities, as they fly around America winning matches and cementing Husker volleyball’s reputation.
Sun — who started her career at Texas before transferring to NU — is appreciative and mindful of this. She’s also reluctant — as much as she may have profited off an NIL market — to suggest she’s missed out on much.
“Rules don’t allow it. That’s just how it’s been for four years,” Sun said in March. “It is what it is. Hearing about new rules coming up, I know it won’t apply to me. But if it could ... ?”
Yes, Sun said, girls at Nebraska would profit.
As Hames unpacked all these gray areas, over walked middle blocker Lauren Stivrins, weaving her way through the workout equipment holding a plastic bag with a brand-new volleyball — full of player signatures — inside. Some fan, somewhere, for some reason, was getting this ball signed by the best athletes in the state.
A captain and two-time All-American, Stivrins is the fire of Nebraska volleyball, its warrior heart whose right arm can rip a kill that snaps an opponent’s head back, whose post-point celebrations and unscripted sideline speeches already mark her, one year before graduation, as a legend in the program.
But in mid-March, a half-hour after a beach volleyball match being broadcast online to 25,000 viewers, she was drained, and dutiful. She handed the ball to Hames, one of Stivrins’ on-court celebration partners and good friends.
“We’re talking about if we got paid,” Hames said, taking a black Sharpie and rotating the ball to find a spot where there was no signature. “They had a legislative hearing at the Capitol, and they brought up Nebraska volleyball. Guess the one person they brought up on our team?”
“Lexi?” Stivrins said.
“Because she’d probably get the most endorsements from it and her Instagram following.”
As Hames signed, she was asked who was getting the volleyball.
“I have no idea,” Hames said.
Said Stivrins: “We don’t know.”
“What do you think about it?” Hames asked Stivrins about NIL legislation. She put the ball back in the bag held open by Stivrins.
“I have no opinion, because it doesn’t affect me in any way,” Stivrins said.
Hames giggled. Well, Stivrins is soon to be a senior, and the NCAA isn’t recommending changes for student-athletes until after her — and Sun’s — final season.
“It’s not even going to affect me, probably,” Hames said as Stivrins walked toward another interview.
If the NCAA moves quickly — and with its spring announcement, it intends to — she just might be affected. Hames is a junior, and her marketability is high.
“It might?” Hames said. “I hope.”