Under the microscope of social media and the NCAA


Symmonds on a run during his professional running career. (photo courtesy of Nick Symmonds)

Kate Walkup, Sports Editor

Money, power, fame. 

But actually, support, encouragement, connection. 

Many student-athletes feel pressure to be someone they’re not, perform at a level way higher than they’re capable of or look a certain way because that’s what social media is telling them. In a world of name, image and likeness (NIL), conference realignments and living their life under a microscope, student-athletes have more on their plate than ever before. 

Through conference realignments, NIL, mental health awareness and the unknown possibilities for the NCAA, student-athletes have seen a shift in the demands and attention they’re under. Gone are the days of going to class, attending practices, studying and squeezing in time to eat and sleep. Instead—in addition to everything these student-athletes used to be responsible for—they’re also expected to make time for brand deals, post monetized content on their social media and travel across the country when their sport is in-season multiple times each week. 

Yeah, some kids like the fast-paced world they’re growing up in, but it’s no secret that even those student-athletes aren’t always the perfect stars they might appear to be on their social media pages. 

Former Olympic runner Nick Symmonds sees the world these current student-athletes are living in from a different perspective. As a YouTuber and company cofounder, Symmonds understands the world of social media and marketing to a T. 

But why do these student-athletes feel the need to market themselves in a way that allows them to make some money? Why does the NCAA and their conferences feel the need to rearrange the conferences so drastically? 

Natalie Welch, Assistant Professor in the Department of Marketing at Seattle University, has a Doctorate of Philosophy in Kinesiology and Sport Studies. Unlike Symmonds, Welch was not a collegiate athlete, but she did work alongside the athletic department while getting her undergraduate degree in Sport Management at the University of Tennessee. Over the years, Welch has studied all things NCAA and has educated others on some of the recent changes the organization has made. 

The NCAA has evolved over the years and changed immensely, but where did it start? How were athletes introduced to college sports to begin with? 

Athletes didn’t have to be enrolled in college in order to get their name on a university’s football roster at the start of the 20th century. As long as they could tackle and beat the other team up, they had a role on the team. This resulted in 18 deaths and countless seriously injured players during the 1904 college football season. After this brutal season of collegiate football teams featuring hired athletes who didn’t attend the school and life-stripping injuries, the founders of what we now know as the NCAA decided to create an organization for athletes to continue their sport while attending college. 

From the day the NCAA was founded in 1906 to the time they decided to create different divisions in 1973, student-athletes were given a new opportunity to get an education while still being able to participate in a given sport. However, it wasn’t until after World War II that the NCAA realized that a set of rules needed to be put into place to ensure amateurism in college sports. 

“It all comes down to money and power,” Welch said. “We talked about how college athletics was started by students for students, and it seems that amateurism is the big thing that they fall back on, but it’s really not.”

As college sports became more and more popular, the bigger schools were able to pour more and more money into their athletic programs, but the smaller schools increasingly struggled to support their athletics programs. This is when the divisions began. 

The NCAA has 11 Division I conferences, 23 Division II conferences and 44 Division III conferences. To break this down, about 176,000 student-athletes compete for 350 Division I programs, just over 118,00 student-athletes compete for 310 Division II schools, and nearly 188,000 student-athletes at 438 schools participate in Division III athletics.

By breaking NCAA intercollegiate athletics up into different divisions and conferences, universities were able to offer student-athletes the opportunity to receive an education while competing in their sport at an appropriate level. 

Athletes at the Division I level have always been held to the highest standard and are expected to perform at their full potential. Most of these athletes are on partial or full-ride scholarships for their sport, so they have more pressure to perform at their expected level than someone competing for a Division III school. 

Both Division I and II athletes must abide by eligibility requirements set by the NCAA, while Division III athletes’ eligibility requirements are set by their respective schools. In the early 1980s, universities saw the first women’s sports championships across multiple sports, and female athletes were finally allowed to join the NCAA. 

While the conferences within the Division I, II and III programs have shifted slightly from the 1970s until today, the NCAA hasn’t seen this much movement in the conferences since the divisions were made. 

In July of this year, USC and UCLA announced that they would be leaving the PAC-12 and joining the Big Ten at the start of the 2024-25 school year. Shortly after publicly announcing their decision to leave the PAC-12, multiple other Division I programs across the nation followed suit. 

Schools like BYU, Cincinnati, New Mexico State, Texas and Oklahoma all plan on changing conferences as well in the next few seasons. 

“Any decision that [the NCAA] makes is carefully calculated on how they can make the most amount of money,” Symmonds said. “The more money they make, the more—in theory—is going to go back to the schools and the athletes.”

While everyone would like to believe that the conference realignments are in favor of the athletes and that the NCAA considered the success of the student-athletes first and foremost, it’s hard to believe this is even slightly true. 

It’s just not realistic for the USC women’s soccer team to play Michigan in November. Not only are they going to become far too familiar with airports and airplanes, but they’re also going to freeze during their games. The average low in Los Angeles in November is 53 degrees, while the average high in Ann Arbor is only 48 degrees. And that’s just one of the many schools they’re going to have to travel cross-country to play in the possible snow and freezing climate. 

“It’s just kind of comical to think about someone going from Michigan to LA or vice versa in the middle of February,” Welch said. “That’s talking about body shock, not only with the time zone but also the weather. I find it really hard to believe that they would be able to keep up with classes.” 

As a professor who taught through the pandemic, Welch knows how much students disliked online classes, but she can’t see a way for these student-athletes to be able to keep up with in-person classes while traveling from coast to coast several times a week. 

Since the conference realignments that are currently in the works don’t seem to be in the athletes’ best interest, then why is the NCAA planning on making these young adults try to be on one of the most difficult business travel schedules while simultaneously attempting to get an education?  

“Conference realignment is such a great example of going after the money,” Welch said. “What they’re doing is kind of working themselves into a position for television deals that are going to be bigger than ever.”

So it all comes down to money, money, money. How can the NCAA make more money, and how can the institutions make more money? But what about all these extra travel expenses? It’s not like the UCLA men’s basketball team can just hop on a bus and drive to the East Coast to play the University of Maryland like they would to go play Cal or Stanford. 

This means flying from one school to the next—multiple times each week during their season. 

“Everyone’s joked about how UCLA and USC are basically going to have to buy private planes to be able to have their athletes travel like that,” Welch said. “They’re going to have to use all that TV money on all the travel. It’s not about prestige or tradition. It’s not about what’s best for the students.”

As a Division III track and cross country athlete, Symmonds went into school with the student-first mentality. He was going to school to get an education first, and to be an athlete second. While he was talented enough to run for a Division I program, Symmonds quickly realized that he didn’t belong at a school where he couldn’t choose how he wanted to educate himself. When he told the schools he was looking at that he wanted to be pre-med, they told him it wasn’t possible for him to do that and run for them. 

“They basically forbid me from studying the degree that I wanted to get,” Symmonds said. “That just seems so counterintuitive to me. I thought I was going to college to get an education, but a lot of schools, a lot of coaches and a lot of players don’t view college that way.”

By choosing to attend Willamette University, Symmonds knew that he would be running for free because the school was a Division III program. While not being on scholarship was a choice Symmonds made, he still believed that the NCAA should provide some way for athletes to earn money for their contribution to college sports in addition to merely getting a scholarship that allows them to attend college. 

“It blows my mind that we, as athletes, did that for free for so long,” Symmonds said. “If you’re a Division I college basketball player, you’re part of a machine that generates billions of dollars for a bunch of administrators and you see nothing—like literally nothing.”

July 1, 2021, the NCAA passed a law stating that student-athletes across all three divisions can benefit from their name, image and likeness. The NCAA wanted to stay away from pay-for-play, so they came up with NIL as a way for student-athletes to be able to make money without it being specifically tied to their athletic abilities. 

It’s no secret, however, that a lot of athletes are getting these brand deals because of their talent or the school they attend. Some recruits have chosen to attend lower caliber schools because of brand deals and endorsements they’re receiving from local companies. So no, they’re not getting paid for playing their sport, but yes, they are getting paid depending on what school they choose to attend. 

Before NIL, the NCAA had the right to these athletes’ name, image and likeness, and the athletes weren’t allowed to make any revenue off of their NIL. Instead, companies like Nike were able to sell gear, such as Sabrina Ionescu’s Oregon women’s basketball replica jerseys, without giving athletes like Ionescu any of the profits. Even if Nike had wanted to pay Ionescu, the NCAA wouldn’t have allowed it. However, with the new NIL rules, companies like Nike are allowed to provide student-athletes with some sort of compensation for using them as branding. 

“The money can go back and benefit students, but so much we’ve seen is money going to administrators and going to facilities,” Welch said. “That’s where the NIL piece comes in. It’s really empowered the student athletes to go out and get their own money and not have to depend on the schools or the NCAA. But it still puts them in a situation where they’re forced to go over and above to make that money—it’s not like they’ve just given it to them.” 

Yes, these student-athletes can now make money off of their NIL. No, they don’t have more time in their day to go to photoshoots, talk on the phone with brands, go to meetings and post a bunch of ads on TikTok and Instagram. 

Remember, they still have practices, classes, training sessions, meetings and a whole lot more on their agenda—just as they had before NIL. 

Just because they’re now allowed to make money doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for all of them. For some student-athletes, NIL is a dream come true. They love being in front of the camera, modeling for brands and talking about their favorite products with their followers. For other athletes, it’s just a means of making a little money to get by throughout the college years. 

“Any individual has this right to their name, image and likeness,” Welch said. “If there’s a student-athlete that really cares about branding themselves and starting their own company, they should absolutely be able to do that. But for others, I feel like so many are just trying to do this to make any kind of money, and especially the ones who are coming from less fortunate situations where they’re really just trying to grab whatever money they can.” 

The positive side of NIL is that NCAA athletes are finally able to make money. But who are these athletes who are actually making the most? 

According to On 3’s NIL rankings, LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne sits at the top of the women’s rankings and high school basketball player Bronny James comes in first for the men. Out of the top 10 women, four were gymnasts and six were basketball players. Only two weren’t white, and only four weren’t a shade of blonde—natural or dyed. For the men, first, second and fourth were high schoolers, and all of the top 10 were either basketball or football players. 

On average, more women seem to be active and willing to put themselves out there on social media than men, and the younger audience is going to also be more likely to spend time building their online personality. This could explain the high school athletes ranking higher than the NCAA athletes for the men. 

So many minority black athletes are put into sports like basketball and football in the hopes that they might become good enough to get a full-ride scholarship to a Division I program and have a glimmer of hope for their future. While NIL looks like a great place for them to be able to make some money for themselves and maybe even their family, the odds just aren’t in their favor. 

The athletes who get the biggest NIL deals aren’t necessarily the best athletes out there. Dunne ranks ahead of three Olympians, and James is merely a high schooler. Maybe it’s their looks, maybe it’s because they understand social media and marketing better than their peers, but one thing is for sure—they’re making way more money than their peers, and it’s not just based on their athletic ability. 

“I think that NIL levels the playing field a little bit,” Symmonds said. “You could be at any division, be not even very good, and still make an incredible amount of money utilizing your NIL.”

If Symmonds had been able to take advantage of NIL while he was an NCAA athlete, he probably would have benefited from being able to make money off of his online personality. Symmonds has close to one million subscribers on YouTube and over 200,000 followers on Instagram. 

While Symmonds was good at his sport—to say the least—he wasn’t at a school that got much attention, being a small Division III school in Oregon. However, just the athlete’s name, image and likeness matters when it comes to NIL deals, so who cares about their athletic success?

“I see a lot of athletes that aren’t particularly good at their sport, but are good at building a community online,” Symmonds said. “I think one thing that we’re actually seeing is that some athletes are so good at using their NIL, that college actually stands in their way. I think we’re gonna see some athletes that become so good at using their NIL and so good at building an online presence that they’re just going to drop out of college.” 

Symmonds think that some athletes might make so much through their NIL that they realize school isn’t helping them anymore. He thinks that in scenarios like this, the school is going to have to find some way to keep the athletes from leaving. 

“I hope that happens,” Symmonds said. “I hope that the schools and the NCAA have to start feeling some pain that they’re losing their best athletes, and they have to make it more attractive, more incentivizing for the students to stay.” 

Some athletes don’t need their school or their sport once they become a big name through their NIL. Sure, the sport or the school may have helped them become well known, but the athlete as an individual is the one continuing to build their online community without ties to their sport or institution. But for the athletes who are only getting these NIL deals because of their athletic talent, those are the athletes who need to stay in their sport and at their school in order to continue to benefit from their NIL. 

“In that scenario, they need the sport, the sport is what’s allowing them to monetize their NIL,” Symmonds said. 

But for athletes like the Cavinder twins—Haley and Hanna Cavinder, who play basketball for the University of Miami and are ranked in the top 10 NIL rankings—they don’t really need basketball anymore. They know how to create content, and they know how to work with brands. Athletes like them don’t need to depend on their sport in order to make money through their NIL. 

“Understanding communication and marketing is a superpower that never expires,” Symmonds said. “If you’re a really great runner, that is a superpower, but it has a shelf life. But if you’re the kind of athlete or the kind of person that understands marketing, brand building and content creation, any company in the world is going to want to work with you.” 

Symmonds isn’t the runner he used to be—he’d admit that in a heartbeat—but that doesn’t matter anymore for him. Maybe he wouldn’t be as well known as he is today without his many accolades on the track, maybe he would, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that Symmonds knows how to market himself in a way that attracts people from various walks of life to tune in and be inspired by him promoting new and innovative fitness endeavors in entertaining ways. 

While Symmonds might not be an NCAA athlete anymore, he’s doing the exact same thing these NCAA athletes are currently doing when it comes to marketing himself and creating content. 

“It’s hard. It’s a really hard skill to be able to build an online community,” Symmonds said. “Some people have it, some people don’t. I would worry more about the really talented athletes that don’t have that superpower than I would worry about the less talented athletes that have that superpower.”

While Symmonds is worried about the athletes who don’t have the ability to market themselves beyond their sport, Welch is worried about the additional pressure NIL has put on already stressed out student-athletes. 

In the first five months of 2022, at least four NCAA athletes committed suicide. These athletes didn’t appear to be struggling in any noticeable way. Just scrolling through their TikTok or Instagram pages, no one would have ever suspected that they were struggling behind the screen. 

“I think there’s this misconception that young people want to be online all the time,” Welch said. “There’s this pressure of always being perfect and always being a brand and not an actual human. It goes back to the capitalist nature of how there’s not enough support for non-elite, perfect-looking athletes.”

There’s so much pressure on student-athletes to present themselves a certain way online, and sometimes they just can’t handle it. Just because an athlete is successful in their sport and in the classroom doesn’t always mean they’re ok on the inside. Being a Division I athlete puts enough pressure on these young adults as it is, but when social media also becomes a part of the equation, sharing every aspect of their life with the world can sometimes be too much for them. 

“It’s this idea that you have to be the best and look the best,” Welch said. 

With athletes now having the ability to make so much off their NIL that they don’t even need a college degree, the NCAA could see a downturn in student-athletes sticking around or even wanting to go to college for their sport. Even though the NCAA technically did give athletes the ability to start making money, they aren’t doing anything to help them. 

Could brand deals and marketing agencies become so involved in college athletics that it pretty much turns into a professional league? This could become the case with the bigger Division I programs, especially if the NCAA were to turn into something else and start giving athletes revenue share. If the NCAA isn’t going to give athletes what they deserve then maybe someone else will.                                                                   

“I’d have no hard feelings about seeing the NCAA going away after all that they’ve stolen from athletes over the last century,” Symmonds said. 

While the Power Five Division I schools could turn into semipro leagues pretty easily if someone started to pay the athletes for what they’ve been making through ticket sales and fan engagement, what about the smaller schools and divisions that don’t make that kind of money? 

“I think that you’ll always have athletes who want to push the limits and be part of that D1 super competitive environment,” Symmonds said. “But you’re gonna have even more athletes that just want to get a degree and do whatever sport they like to play more for what it does for their body, mind and soul.”

Remember, not every 18–22-year-old wants to be a social media star, and not every athlete is going to have the skills to become one. Some student-athletes still want to go to college, pursue a degree and play their sport because they love it. The majority of Divisions III athletes are just in their sport to have a good time and continue an activity from high school. Only a select few have the drive and determination to make it to the top. 

“One of the cool things about the D3 level is if you want to train your butt off, there are really good programs that will help you get to where you want to go,” Symmonds said.

Symmonds’ story of making the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams is a perfect example of someone continuing the sport they loved and working all the way to the top despite being at the Division III level. It didn’t matter that his teammates didn’t work as hard as he did or run as fast as he could. They were all participating in the same sport for different reasons, but they all wanted to be there, and that’s what mattered. 

Only two or three of his teammates had the mentality of wanting to get better and post faster times. The rest of the team was there for the social aspect—Symmonds remembers some of them who didn’t even like to run. But that didn’t matter to him. As long as his teammates supported him and his coaches trained him at the appropriate level, Symmonds knew he could reach his goals. 

“I think there’s always going to be space for Division III,” Symmonds said. “There’s something pure about athletes just competing for the love of the sport, not under scholarship. Maybe they focus on NIL, maybe they don’t.” 

Yes, not every athlete can be like Symmonds and train on their own. For instance, a basketball player needs good teammates around them to help them improve. A soccer player can’t play in a match well under their skill level and become a better player. But for Symmonds, it was just his legs carrying him around the track. 

“I was in a sport where when a gun goes off, it’s all me,” Symmonds said.

Both Symmonds and Welch believe that Division III sports will always have a place. Student-athletes want to play sports and coaches want to coach those athletes. Even if some of the Division I schools turn into semiprofessional leagues, not every student athlete will be capable of participating. After all, that’s why the NCAA made divisions and conferences in the first place. 

“I think you’re going to have a much bigger split between Division III, Division II and smaller Division I schools where it’s really about participation, and Division I is basically semipro,” Welch said. “I think that’s where we’re gonna be in about 10 years. A lot comes down to just the money and the TV contracts.”

Money. Once again the center of attention. No matter how much money the NCAA, the conferences, the schools and the athletes make, they’re always seeking to make more. Even though college sports seems to be making a turn in the direction of social media, marketing and brand deals, there’ll always be room for the athletes who just simply want to compete in their sport. 

Maybe some of these athletes will turn into successful marketers and content creators like Symmonds, maybe they’ll crack under the pressure. While no one knows what the future might hold for the NCAA and college athletics, one thing is for sure—athletes will continue to make their sport a priority as long as it helps them reach their goal. 

Perhaps their goal is to make an Olympic team, perhaps it’s to become famous on TikTok. Whatever it may be, support from the NCAA, their schools, their coaches and their peers is all these athletes can ask for. 

“I think that as a country—even at the D3 level—sometimes we lose focus of what we’re at college for,” Symmonds said. “And that’s primarily to get an education.”