The dawn of the NIL era: Northwestern navigates new NCAA landscape with goals to ‘educate and empower’ student-athletes


Photo by Joshua Hoffman, Graphic by Meher Yeda

Graduate attacker Lauren Gilbert looks upfield. Gilbert has worked with camps thanks to new NIL rules.

Charlotte Varnes, Development and Recruitment Editor

Graduate student attacker Lauren Gilbert has long been one of Northwestern lacrosse’s greatest offensive assets.

The Oregon native has been lethal on attack for the Wildcats, receiving All-Big Ten honors in 2021 and ranking ninth in the country in goals scored in 2021. She was also nominated for the 2021 Tewaaraton Award, an annual honor given to the top player in college lacrosse.

Prior to July 1, well-known college athletes like Gilbert could not accept endorsement money or advertise their appearances at sports camps without considerable consequences. That all changed for Illinois student-athletes on June 29, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed Senate Bill 2338 into law: the Student-Athlete Endorsement Rights Act.

The legislation defined compensation for student-athletes and set boundaries for how they could profit off their name, image and likeness. It provided a blueprint for Illinois universities, like NU, about how they should approach NIL. The University has since introduced its own NIL policy, heavily influenced by Illinois’ legislation.

Now, with this legislation in place, Gilbert can take advantage of being a well-known figure in the college lacrosse world and market herself through her name, image and likeness.

“It’s a lot easier to advertise now because we are allowed to use our name, image and likeness,” Gilbert said. “Whereas, before, (when working at lacrosse clinics) it was gaining clientele through your built-in network, now we can really advertise ourselves.”

Early NIL conversations on campus

Internal conversations about NIL stretch back a “long, long way,” but began to take shape over the past two years, according to Paul Kennedy, associate athletic director for communications. 

This timeline goes hand in hand with the acceleration of NIL discussions nationwide. In September 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Fair Pay to Play Act into law, which, starting in 2023, will prohibit universities within the state from punishing student-athletes who receive compensation from endorsement deals. The following month, the NCAA announced it would re-examine and modernize its name, image and likeness rules by January of this year. 

[Read The Daily’s look into the impact NIL legislation would have on NU athletes before the legislation was passed.]

However, the NCAA had to indefinitely table changing its rules in January when it received a letter from the Department of Justice’s antitrust division claiming the legislation could place the organization in legal jeopardy. In the meantime, several states created their own variations of NIL legislation. 

So the NCAA adopted an interim policy in June, granting all student-athletes the ability to profit off their name, image and likeness in order to ensure all student-athletes across the country had opportunities to pursue business deals. 

Kennedy emphasized the uncertainty surrounding this period, saying it was difficult to plan for NIL when it was uncertain whether there would be federal legislation imposing the same rules on all states or if it would be a “patchwork of scattershot solutions” based on individual state law.

“It was clearly something that was going to change in college athletics,” Kennedy said. “You want to be (as) prepared as you can for it, but it was very difficult to assess or ascertain what you were supposed to be prepared for.”

Prior to 2021, Illinois lawmakers proposed several different versions of legislation that would have allowed student-athletes to make money off their NIL. However, none succeeded until S.B.  2338 was passed. 

At the same time, NU was experiencing a transition in athletic directors. Derrick Gragg took over as athletic director on July 1 — the same day NIL legislation took effect in Illinois. Kennedy said he was especially impressed with Gragg’s support during his early days at NU, saying he thinks Gragg brings a “unique perspective” to the issue given his own experience as a college athlete.

As the legislation advanced in Illinois, associate athletic director for compliance Kristina Minor closely followed along so that the University could keep up to speed with the changes. Minor pulled a draft of S.B. 2338 from the internet and set to work on creating NU’s official policy with a team of officials from across the University. She worked alongside the general counsel to ensure the policy was “on the right track” and followed NCAA and state rules. 

From this, NU’s own NIL policy came about. Neither Kennedy nor Minor could remember the exact date, but the official policy was released on Northwestern Athletics’ website over the summer.

Educating student-athletes

Following the establishment of NU’s policy, the focus turned to educating student-athletes about NIL.

Minor said she views education as being two separate tracks: one about NIL policies and the other with “industry-specific” information. Athletics started teaching student-athletes about the rules over the summer, starting with an optional webinar with information about the basics of NIL. She said the goal was to ensure student-athletes had enough knowledge at their disposal that they knew when to come to her with questions and to “educate and empower” them in the process. 

“We’ve got athletes that are wholly uninterested and that’s fine,” Minor said. “There are student-athletes that are interested in maximizing every opportunity possible. That is also perfectly fine. We want to make sure they are all educated and making informed decisions.”

While the athletic department can advise students about the rules of NIL, policies dictate it cannot help students make deals or advise them in specific business scenarios. However, the department is allowed to refer students to outside experts or resources on campus who can answer their questions.

Kennedy said athletics feels lucky to be on such a “dynamic, achieving” campus with plenty of resources for student-athletes to take advantage of. He said linking student-athletes with resources around campus has been an important component of the university’s NIL policy.

The University has partnered with the app INFLCR to track athletes’ NIL deals, adhering to state policy that deals must be disclosed. The app allows athletes to input details about their deals, which are then shared with the compliance office. Minor said she then goes through to approve deals, only disapproving them if students don’t provide all of the information needed by law. 

From a student-athlete’s standpoint, Gilbert said athletics has done a “really good job” with their education process, saying it has offered plenty of guidance to student-athletes. She said lacrosse has an annual compliance meeting each year, and this year the University spent time walking them through what steps they have to take to remain compliant and benefit from NIL.

Students take advantage of NIL

NU student-athletes have inked deals with a variety of companies over the past few months now that they have the ability and resources at their disposal to benefit from NIL. 

Sophomore football player Brandon Joseph has a deal with Sarchione Auto Gallery, a car dealership in Ohio. Graduate student football player Charlie Kuhbander has a deal with Evanston’s Cantuccio’s Pizza and debit card company Enzo. Sophomore field hockey player Maddie Zimmer won a national championship while partnered with STX, a field hockey equipment company.

Joseph, an All-American selection in his redshirt freshman season in 2020, spoke on his NIL prospects during Big Ten Media Days in July. Even then, just two weeks into NIL, Joseph said he had been approached by sponsors. Joseph said social media is an especially powerful marketing tool, with some companies promising him goods in exchange for advertisement posts.

Beyond making brand deals, student-athletes can now advertise their own camps and clinics. Prior to NIL, student-athletes could work at sports camps, but couldn’t advertise for the camps with their name, image or likeness.

Gilbert and her sister Katy, a lacrosse player at Stanford, took advantage of this last summer, when they worked camps with the lacrosse clubs Oregon Pride and Cityside Lax. 

“I coached a camp in Seattle, and I think they were able to attract more people because they were able to use my name in their advertisements for the camp,” Gilbert said. “There were girls (at the camp) who watch college lacrosse and knew who I was, and that’s a really great way for me to build my brand among people wanting trainings around that area.”

The future of NIL at NU

NU’s status as the Big Ten’s smallest university and only private institution makes it an interesting case study. With national championships in women’s lacrosse and field hockey in the last decade, the University’s athletic department also has the potential to challenge the hierarchy that king football and basketball as the main moneymakers. 

NU women’s lacrosse alum Lindsey McKone didn’t get to profit off her name, image and likeness in college. But said she’s especially interested to see how NIL affects non-revenue versus revenue sports and the “parity of sports” between genders and teams. 

Gilbert, one of McKone’s former teammates, said she was excited about NIL’s potential to allow female athletes to build their brands while in college. 

“It’s really cool to build this platform while we’re in college, so whether or not we’re able to make a career out of our sport, we’re still able to have this platform with athletics as a foundation of that,” Gilbert said. 

Still, it’s been impossible to track a trend thus far. Kennedy said student-athlete involvement with NIL has been “all over the map,” so far. He said businesses have expressed definite interest in NU student-athletes so far, and he expects that to continue in the future. 

Despite all of the uncertainties of NIL, Minor said she is very proud of how things are going so far. She said problems, like different states having different NIL policies, remain, but she’s sure it will be resolved eventually.

“I’m very happy with the way our student-athletes have taken this on,” Minor said. “I stay impressed by Northwestern students, in general. They have really good heads on their shoulders.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @charvarnes11

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