How Does the NCAA NIL Policy Grade on College Athlete Mental Health?

For the uninitiated, NIL is an acronym for name, image, likeness. It has been tossed around a lot in the arena of college football and basketball over the last two years. On June 30, 2021, the NCAA Division 1 Board of Directors approved a NIL policy that allows all NCAA D1, D2 and D3 student-athletes to be compensated for their NIL, regardless of whether their state has a NIL law in place or not.

Many suggest that the policy was long overdue, and only fair to athletes who put it all on the line for the sake of their schools’ programs. Support is buttressed by the slim odds of making professional leagues (NFL, NBA, etc.) in search of a big payday. Furthermore, one’s amateur or professional prospects can be taken away in an instant by a torn ACL. In theory, NIL deals allow a young athlete to make as much money as they can today, before their athletic careers may be taken away.

Considering the above, it’s not hard to see the logic behind the allowance of a NIL policy. However, dangling a multi-million dollar carrot in front of an athlete is problematic, namely to their mental health. Below is a breakdown of why universities and the NCAA along with student athletes and their families must tread lightly now that NIL deals have become a part of the collegiate sports experience.

How NCAA NIL Deals May Compound Already Concerning College Athlete Mental Health Issues

The “Collective” Problem

At first, college athlete sponsorships came in the form of direct deals between companies (i.e. Nike, etc.) and each individual athlete. The symbiotic relationship was simple enough.

It didn’t take long for others to get involved.

Organized groups known as “collectives” entered the fold. Collectives operate independently of the university and athletic departments, but are typically founded by alumni of the schools. They raise funds to be allocated to athletes for the rights to use their NIL.

On the surface, a collective seems harmless. If involved alumni (and their businesses) want a current star athlete to be the face of their respective car dealerships, furniture warehouses, and brokerages, it’s all on the up-and-up according the the NCAA’s NIL policy. However, it seems that collectives may be functioning in a manner similar to the most dirty word in athlete recruitment – boosters:

“All help facilitate NIL deals with their school’s current athletes. And many are helping facilitate NIL deals with prospective ones. Recruits of various star rankings are signing big-time contracts, and for at least contracts reviewed by The Athletic, the money is guaranteed regardless of a recruit’s long-term presence on the team.”

The Athletic

Please note that we’re not being hyperbolic in comparing collectives to boosters. The NCAA Board of Directors has explicitly stated that collectives count as boosters in NIL guidelines. And yet, to this day collectives are being singled out for their recruitment tactics. Last week, ESPN reported that a star high-school quarterback was offered a multi-million NIL deal via a collective to sign with a program. The player reportedly signed, but recently requested a release from his national letter of intent after the NIL deal fell through.

“Collectives are officially unaffiliated with the schools they support. Florida, by rule, has no control over which athletes the Gator Collective signs to endorsement deals or how much money the group offers in those deals. In theory, collectives are booster groups that collect funds to pay athletes who are already attending the school they support. In practice, many of the more aggressive collectives have become outsourced payroll outfits that are used to unofficially entice players to attend their school.”


The implications of NIL deals in recruitment are especially concerning, because they impact high-school students. Their frontal lobes are far from developed, and as a result do not yet have the cognitive capacity for proper planning and judgement.

Young athletes are already at-risk of a number of mental health concerns, and the collectives that accompany NIL deals add yet another layer. Please keep reading.

Sponsored Athletes Face Even Greater Pressure to Perform

University athletes are already under tremendous pressure to perform at an elite level on the court, track, and field. They need to do so to maintain scholarships, and in some cases, to sustain their positions as prospects for professional leagues. But once they enter into endorsement deals, they take on added responsibility to the brands and companies that they have ceded their name, image, and likeness to. When they prepare to take that last second shot, or make a final run to the end zone, the weight of that responsibility weighs heavier than ever before.

Sponsored Athletes Face Even Greater Pressure to Perform…on Social Media

College athletes of today are “playing the game” in a whole new era. Current and prospective sponsors not only look to how they perform in the stadium, but how they perform on social media.

“Instagram and other platforms have become an essential part of athletes’ lives, and their ability to make money. It can also take a direct toll on their health, and even their ability to compete.”

Wall Street Journal

Social media has granted the public access to collegiate athletes at all hours of the day, which means that they (sponsored athletes) don’t have the luxury to “turn off” their performance when the game clock has run down to zero. Brands and companies entering into NIL deals with student athletes factor in the athletes’ social media following. They expect athletes to endorse their products/services on the athletes’ Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, and conduct themselves in a certain way. On top of it all, athletes expose themselves to armchair quarterbacking, criticisms, and slander from the public with an increased presence on social media.

Numerous studies show that social media use is already linked to a mental health decline in college students. When you pile on expectations from NIL endorsement deals, it may become too much to bear for athletes.

Potential to Inflate College Athlete Mental Health Crisis

University athletes are already more vulnerable (compared to the general population) to a number of mental health concerns. These include the following:

  • Mental exhaustion
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disroders

You can read more about each of these here, but the point we’re making is clear. Student athletes who enter into NIL deals must now fulfill endorsement roles that could be worth hundreds-of-thousands of dollars, if not millions. Given what they already have on their plates, they face increased risk of the mental health problems that they are already vulnerable to.

If the current NCAA NIL policy continues, it must run concurrently with enhanced mental health support for student athletes. Colleges and universities with NCAA D1, D2 and D3 programs are encouraged to reach out to Kindbridge Behavioral Health today to discuss options for student athletes.

College and University Admin:

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