What are athletes to us? Physically blessed humans who excite us with their exploits on the field or court or track? Sure. Surrogates for our own dreams of achievement and heroism, striving for wins that stand in for our aspirations? Of course. But is what they do for us — for our culture — only about sports? It’s easy to look at athletes in action and say what they do, even though we know we could never do it ourselves. But what do athletes mean? Can they also be famous just for being who they are? For being the bearers of compelling stories? And can those stories move outside the realm of pure sport?
In college sports, athletes are now permitted to profit from the commercial use of their names, images, and likenesses. In the so-called revenue sports (mainly football and men’s basketball), this new “NIL” agreement, as it’s called, which went into effect last summer, is going to have radical and massive effects on amateur athletics.
Here is a case in point: Zakai Zeigler. What a name! A quizzical, double-Z zigzag of Hebrew and Jewish origin. When you lay eyes on him, the name gets even more interesting. Zeigler is Black, and he’s got an unusual look, especially for his milieu, college basketball. He wears his hair long, and pulled into pigtail dreads. When he speaks, it’s in an accent that is recognizably New York City, but it’s not quite clear which New York City: a sort of composite that sounds like it takes in numerous boroughs, plus a little Long Island — where Zeigler grew up — and the tang of the city basketball court itself. Take one look at him and hear him speak for a few seconds, and you want to hear more.
Ziegler, who recently finished his freshman year playing for the University of Tennessee, rewards that interest. He tends to have more to say than most 19-year-old college athletes do in interviews with the press. He isn’t practiced — yet — in the kind of commonplaces and cliches that most jocks learn to dispense, mainly as a means of self-protection. Or maybe he is practiced but would simply rather say something more interesting. Sometimes when he talks to the media, there’s the hint of a twinkle in his eye, a glinting grin that suggests that he’d rather play a more surprising game, just like the one he plays on the court, which is surprising by necessity.
That necessity is built right into Ziegler’s body. For a basketball player, he’s very small. He is listed at 5-foot-10 — he’s probably not even that tall — and just 165 pounds. His game is all about quickness and surprise. He’s a “Mouse in the House,” to borrow the title of a school-generated video clip that shows him scurrying under and around much bigger players for a layup, like Jerry beating a team of Toms to his hole in the wall.
Zeigler’s unusually diminutive size makes him stand out, paradoxically, among the tall trees on the court. You can’t help but notice someone who only comes up to his teammates’ collarbones. But there’s something else about him that attracts attention. Almost as soon as he took the court in a February game, ESPN color commentator Fran Fraschilla said: “The NIL is going to make him very popular.”
When Zeigler, who comes off the bench as a reserve, entered that game, Tennessee was well behind with not much time left to play. Zeigler promptly took over. He rebounded a missed Texas shot, drove up the court and made a three-pointer, getting style points for falling down after he launched it. Then he moused his way through traffic on consecutive possessions for a pair of layups. On the next possession, Zeigler fearlessly fired up another three-pointer. It didn’t quite go in, but he has a soft shooting touch, and his attempt was well-timed: his teammates had good rebounding position, and one of them tipped in the near-miss. A game that appeared to be a lost cause when Zeigler came in was now tied. Fraschilla exclaimed: “Zakai Zeigler is going to be a rockstar at Tennessee!”
Not “great player” or even “star player.” No — rockstar. A word that has nothing to do with sports. The kid transcends the sport he plays: he’s an entertainer, and a born one. He’s got the look, the name, the charisma, and the boldness. He may never be bound for the NBA, but he’s already a lock for the NIL, and the NIL is perfectly suited to a college athlete like him: one whose presence and image poise him to gain financially from the opportunity his present circumstances create. You could say that his electrifying couple of late minutes on the court erased Tennessee’s deficit. You could also say they were building his case for more playing time. Or you could say that Zakai Zeigler was building his brand.
Meanwhile, alongside the NIL agreement has come the establishment of the “transfer portal.” In effect, the portal makes it easier for players to change schools during their undergraduate playing careers, and they’re taking liberal advantage.
At first, the portal seemed mostly to give talented players at lesser-known schools, where their skills were going largely unnoticed far from the spotlight of major programs, a chance to graduate, so to speak, to more prominent settings where television was likelier to find them. More recently, though, players who have already established themselves as stars with big-time programs are taking their games, and their brands, to other equally prestigious schools elsewhere, building audiences in new places. That would appear to make athletes, not their schools, the increasingly bright focal point of college sports.
If Zakai Zeigler excels for another season at Tennessee, which plays in the mighty Southeastern Conference, maybe he’ll find it useful for his future success to transfer to, say, UCLA, near Hollywood, or to a school in the northeast to be closer not only to his New York home (which, shockingly, recently burned down; a GoFundMe campaign quickly came to his family’s aid) but also to New York’s bases of money and power.
But before we get carried away with the idea that the balance of power is going to tilt sharply and unilaterally in favor of athletes, it’s worth appreciating some potential effects of the NIL agreement that could make the future more complicated and interesting. The institutions, to be sure, will retain plenty if not most of the power. But that power may be wielded and distributed differently. For example, Brigham Young University made a deal with an energy bar company — whose founder and CEO is a BYU alum — to pay the tuition and fees of all three dozen of the football team’s walk-on players via a sponsorship deal. In this case, the NIL is actually giving more power to a school that is thinking creatively about ways to attract players to its ranks.
Similarly, when one incoming freshman basketball player recently announced his intentions to sign with Duke, it was estimated that his choice “earned” him an immediate $200,000, simply because Duke is one of the most prominent and competitive teams in the country. Brands want to associate themselves with that kind of notoriety, and powerhouses like Duke basketball and Alabama football could attract even more of the best players than they already do under their already prominent umbrellas of fame. That could make it harder than ever for smaller schools to compete.
Schools like tiny St. Peter’s in Jersey City, which stunned the college basketball world by advancing all the way to the regional finals of the NCAA tournament in March—no 15-seed had ever pulled that off—after shocking powerhouse Kentucky in the first round. After the tournament ended, another shocker from Kentucky: their star forward Oscar Tshiebwe, fresh off winning the National Player of the Year Award, surprisingly announced that he would return to Kentucky for his senior season rather than turn pro (as he’d been expected to do). That decision surely owed to what Tshiebwe stands to gain financially from NIL deals—an estimated $2 million. There’s less financial incentive for him, or any other star college athlete, to turn pro.
Tshiebwe’s spurning of the NBA for another year in college points to another potentially major shift in the balance of amateur-professional power. Over the last generation or so, more and more underclassmen have foregone years of amateur eligibility to cash in on pro paydays. They’ve frequently taken short-term cashouts that hurt them in the long run after it became clear that they weren’t prepared (or in some cases talented enough) for substantial pro careers. By providing that money up front while they’re still in school, the NIL will allow players to develop their games at the amateur level for longer, and set themselves up for more sustainable careers in the pros.
The NCAA has mostly stood by helplessly while professional leagues have poached the best college athletes early: the so-called “one-and-done” phenomenon of freshman bolting for the pros. Like it or not, a $10 million rookie contract-level investment isn’t really much of a gamble for a major pro sports franchise. If the kid doesn’t pan out, shrug. At least that 19-year-old made far more than he could ever have made in college, which was nothing at all.
The result of decisions like Tshiebwe’s indicate how radically the NIL is changing all of this. There are now millions of dollars available for the best players at the best schools, and many of them are staying. The NCAA fought the implementation of the NIL quite hard, worried that de facto pay-for-play schemes would puncture the veneer of amateurism on which college sports’ image relies.
The irony is that, having essentially lost that battle, the NCAA stands to win the war if more and more juniors and seniors stay in school. That will help keep the spotlight on the college game, whose quality will only improve as a result of more mature players, like Oscar Tshiebwe, in uniform. In the end, everyone wins. The NCAA stays watchable and relevant. Athletes make the money they deserve. The pros get more mature players. And we all get better stories — especially right now. The NIL is still so new that its early effects are creating a sort of Wild West of player compensation. There’s the billionaire Florida entrepreneur John Ruiz, who has signed countless players to endorsement deals with his companies in order to attract them to (and keep them in) Florida schools. There are agents for college athletes demanding better deals for their clients and threatening to send them into the transfer portal otherwise. There are so-called “NIL collectives”: fan organizations that pool money to pay players for autograph sessions, social media posts, and more.
The NIL is only just getting started, but it’s already showing signs of getting out of hand. The new landscape is getting overgrown with the green of money. The NIL is driving an almost furious level of change. Pay attention now, before the old institutions and systems threatened by that change start exercising their reactionary power to put a clamp on it.