College NIL Didn’t Tear Our Team Apart. It’s Helping Us Win

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Kaiden Smith is a senior at Appalachian State University and a strong safety on the school’s football team.

It’s here. College athletes are finally getting paid.

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We’re five months into the new era of name, image and likeness (NIL), and college sports, per usual, seem to be thriving. I know for a fact that my team is; we’re in the midst of a season where we lead our division and are vying for a conference championship and bowl game victory.

We’ve also completely dispelled one of the major concerns often brought up by people opposed to paying college athletes: locker room chemistry. Skeptics worried that teammates getting paid unequally would cause friction within a team, but personally I have seen none. I’ve actually seen quite the opposite on my own team, as my teammates have done nothing but help and support each other through this new age of paying athletes.

A few days after the NIL ruling was officially announced, my quarterback Chase Brice took to Twitter, trying to see if he could strike up a deal with a local restaurant in our college town. But he wasn’t looking to feed just himself; he wanted to feed his offensive line for protecting him, a tradition during the season.

Another one of my teammates, Baer Hunter, wanted to start his own clothing line Baer Necessities Apparel, and when he needed some help launching, he leaned on his teammates. Another teammate and I helped model his clothing, and yet another player on our squad, who’s great with a camera, took the pictures for the company’s website. When the site launched, a ton of our teammates reposted it to help promote the site, and I even gave Baer Necessities an advertisement on the podcast I host.

It’s also been common on our team that when one person partners with a business, others come along. Our players have done a great job at collaborating with one another and letting each other know about potential deals, as we’ve had multiple athletes sign with local businesses like TApp Room, Clean Eatz, House United Apparel and Blue Deer Cookie Company.

I personally am signed with UREPZ as a brand ambassador. UREPZ is a self-representation platform that allows student athletes to market to and monetize their audience. I signed with UREPZ for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest was to help other student athletes navigate NIL. I’ll only be a college athlete for a few more weeks, but others have many years ahead of them to potentially profit from their likeness. Not every student athlete has that “business-minded” mindset, but I know this service can help athletes get their well-deserved money for years to come, even when I’m done being an athlete.

For those who haven’t been in a locker room before, your teammates are some of your closest friends. In the same way you want to see them win on the field, you want to see them win off the field, as well. Could there be some jealousy in seeing a teammate make more money than you? Of course. Just like you envy a colleague when they get that promotion you had been hoping to get, it’s no different than nearly every job in the world.

The main difference is that when you’re on a team, you spend hours together working out, watching film, eating, practicing, playing with one another, and even living with each other. It’s a special and strong bond. Good teammates always help each other when they can, and it’s no different with NIL. So don’t be surprised if team camaraderie sneakily increases through the NIL era, as you see more collaborative work between athletes.

Another major concern was the unequal payment of athletes across different sports and universities. If anything, NIL has leveled the playing field, or paying field, of college athletics. All college athletes are fully aware of which sports and schools rake in the most money. The Alabama footballs and Kentucky basketballs of the world will forever get more funding, and those athletes will always reap the benefits through stipends, cost-of-attendance checks, state of the art facilities, the best equipment and gear, fine dining, and more.

But for athletes who aren’t at these brand name schools, NIL has become a way to flip the script. Every athlete brings something different to the table, no matter their gender, race, what sport they play, where or at what level they play—and now they can profit from what they bring to the table.

We now are in a college sports landscape, where twin sisters who play basketball at Fresno State are reportedly making upwards of five figures in endorsement deals. Whether you’re a starting quarterback at a powerhouse program or a bench warmer at a mid-major, through NIL deals these two athletes can see similar amounts of profit, especially with the rise of social media.

If student athletes at my school, located in a small mountain town in North Carolina, are getting paid, they can get paid anywhere, at any campus across the country. In this new NIL arena, every student athlete has a chance to make their well-deserved money, and so far everyone is winning.

Smith is a double major in Communication Studies and Journalism, and is a strong safety on the football team that won four consecutive Sun Belt Conference championships. He is also a senior sports reporter for his student newspaper, The Appalachian, and co-hosts The 135 Podcast with teammate Thomas Hennigan, available on Apple and Spotify. He previously wrote about NIL for Sportico last year.