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HBCU athletes already benefiting from NIL changes, and more will, too

Rapper Master P’s son Hercy, an incoming Tennessee State freshman, has already signed a $2 million deal

The same day Charles McClelland officially welcomed Florida A&M University to the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), the SWAC commissioner also celebrated the easing of restrictions on athletes monetizing their names, images and likenesses (NIL).

On July 1, the NCAA’s new policy to allow student-athletes to market their names, images and likenesses and several new state laws went into effect.

The lessening of those restrictions is worth celebrating for many reasons, McClelland said, but he’s also thrilled of what it means for a few Rattlers. “From what I’ve heard, a few FAMU athletes already have gotten NIL deals,” McClelland told The Undefeated.

Florida A&M was one of several schools nationwide to contract with outside companies to help athletes in every sport find opportunities and make smart decisions – and, just as critically, guide the school and athletic departments. FAMU announced a five-year partnership with INFLCR and Teamworks to help prepare its student-athletes with education, marketing and technology to expand their personal brands.

The SWAC and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), the two Division I historically Black college and university (HBCU) conferences, stated their support of the loosening of the NIL restrictions earlier, publicly standing behind their athletes and the right to income that historically had been denied by NCAA rules.

McClelland said that while this only scratches the surface of resolving the inequities HBCUs deal with, this was a big step for current and future athletes.

“All our member institutions are committing to supporting our student-athletes,” McClelland said. “As times change, we are evolving, and our institutions have evolved. … [There is] no resistance at all, a full embrace.”

The benefits paid off immediately for HBCU athletes, confirming the long-held belief that making NIL available would be an equalizer with Power 5 football and basketball players. Five Jackson State football players were among the first to sign deals just after midnight on July 1. Tennessee State basketball recruit Hercy Miller – the son of rapper Master P and one of the more high-profile HBCU recruits in the past year – has reportedly signed a deal with an app company worth $2 million.

Those are the high-profile examples in the high-profile sports. However, the core of the new policy is that NIL is available to every athlete and is applicable to any platform, not just corporate endorsements.

“You won’t see the FCS student-athletes receiving the same kind of monies that the Autonomy Five [Power 5] student-athletes will,” MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas pointed out. “Nike will probably do something with the Autonomy Fives, but the local sporting goods store or the local restaurant will be available for the student-athletes at the FCS levels where we are. So the opportunities will be there for everybody, but the remunerations are going to be different – that’s just the financial realities.”

One company moved in early to add college athletes to its portfolio of professional clients. But to start, how many athletes and how much money aren’t truly the point of opening the door that the NCAA kept shut for so long.

“I like to tell people who ask how will the new rules benefit athletes: ‘As much or as little as you want,’ ” said former West Virginia and University of Massachusetts basketball player Luke Bonner, founder of PWRFWD (pronounced power forward), which is based in Concord, New Hampshire. “It’s like that with every other student now.”

Bonner, whose firm works with athletes to connect with fans through custom-made products using e-commerce and social media, recalled the times in college when he would write a song or create music or assist at a basketball camp or organize a charity event, “and I couldn’t put my name on it. I didn’t know if I could sell sponsorships.” It’s what drove him to later become an advocate for athletes’ financial freedom.

The fact that athletes’ ability to monetize themselves isn’t dictated by the program or league they’re in, or even whether they’re a starter or a star, drives the idea that HBCU athletes can capitalize monetarily despite their school’s size.

The individual can dictate their marketability more than people realize, Bonner said. “I think we [the public] are inherently more interested – it’s a story – when a five-star athlete has an HBCU in their final list.”

That interest grows, he added, when it’s an athlete who already has a huge following coming into college, as is increasingly the case in the era of social media visibility.

McClelland recognizes that as well, noting that the NCAA’s transfer rules now benefit athletes who no longer have to choose between building their name and reputation at a smaller school where they can immediately play, and a larger school with bigger visibility. They can now have both: “Why not go to a SWAC school, play, get your NIL money, and you can still go to a major school? … NIL and the transfer portal can go hand in hand.”

That would be a win-win for the player and an HBCU; transfers in both directions between Power 5 programs and HBCUs have already taken place in football and basketball.

Much of the success of this still depends on how upcoming state legislation, potential federal legislation and, eventually, an actual NCAA policy develop in the future.

So, with that in mind, Thomas urged athletes and the institutions to be cautious, while emphasizing that the league and its members are happy with the development and are providing any support the athletes need in navigating the new world.

“This is new, a novel situation for everybody, and there will be questions along the way,” Thomas said. “We should have a great deal of probity with our expectations and what this landscape’s about.”

Both the SWAC and MEAC, meanwhile, will get to see how the NIL changes apply to their marquee athletes soon enough. The two biggest football games on their schedules return this year after each was canceled during the pandemic, the MEAC/SWAC Challenge between North Carolina Central and Alcorn State in August, and the Celebration Bowl in December. Both games are in Atlanta, and both will feature entire rosters of players who could cash in on whatever is available related to the games and the host city – whether they’re the game MVP or they never set foot on the field.

“The bigger the platform, the more opportunity to capitalize on your NIL,” McClelland said. “It’s what we’ve said, remember what this country stands for – capitalism and commerce.”

David Steele has written about sports for more than 30 years, for outlets including the Sporting News, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday. He co-authored Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist Tommie Smith's 2007 autobiography, Silent Gesture.