Shayna Kobrinetz | Journalism 414 Capstone
Anna Smith has spent countless hours at Heritage Hall- the home of USC Athletics- over the last four years. She walks through the underground hallways connecting Heritage Hall with the John McKay center- a hub for athletes on campus, passing murals celebrating her new coach and former Trojan, Amy Rodriguez, boasting slogans like “We are the Women of Troy,” tucked between the women’s soccer and women’s lacrosse locker rooms. Since she first enrolled in 2018, the landscape for collegiate athletes, especially female athletes, has shifted dramatically.
Smith graduated from USC in 3 ½ years. She’s now preparing for her final season of eligibility as the starting goalkeeper on the USC women’s soccer team. She’s also pursuing her master’s in Digital Media Management. To say that Smith is busy would be an understatement.
But, like most college athletes, Smith’s schedule hardly affords her time to fit in a part-time job. And unlike most other college students, Smith was unable to profit off her experiences as a collegiate athlete- whether through social media, brand deals, or sales of her jersey for the first three years of her career.
Until July 1, 2021, the NCAA enforced strict rules that prohibited athletes from profiting from their name, image, and likeness. Any endorsement deals, autograph sales, or other instances that would see athletes earn money in any way that was related to their sport or status as a student-athlete could see an athlete stripped of their eligibility or faced with harsh sanctions.
Now, the NCAA has taken a step back, if only slightly, to pave the way for athletes to have more freedom in how they benefit from their status outside of a sports setting.
For Smith, that means the ability to capitalize on her social media presence and authority as an athlete and benefit on her own terms.
“It’s something that can really help the women’s sports industry grow and can help women explore things off the field and pursue passions that maybe they wouldn’t before,” Smith said.
Smith has used the opportunity presented by NIL to capitalize not only on her personal social media presence but grow professionally as well, as she prepares to graduate from USC and her time as a student-athlete.
“It’s something that can really help the women’s sports industry grow and can help women explore things off the field and pursue passions that maybe they wouldn’t before.”ANNA SMITH
Now a social media intern for USC Athletics, Smith can be found on-camera, reporting as part of her “Anna’s Answers” series, covering everything from NFL Pro Day to the USC-UCLA track and field meet. She’s growing her brand- reaching beyond what was previously permitted to redefine what being a student-athlete entails.
USC Associate Sports Information Director Darcy Couch has worked in collegiate athletics since 2004, first at the Big West Conference and now at USC, serving the women’s basketball, men’s and women’s water polo, and men’s tennis teams.
For the first 17 years of Couch’s career, the athletes she worked with were unable to profit in any way off of their own image and likeness- even if not athletically related.
“Early on, we had a [women’s water polo] athlete who did some modeling when she was in high school,” Couch recalled. “I don’t think she made a lot of money, but she was modeling for certain things. But when she came here, she could no longer model- and I always thought that was weird.”
The athlete wasn’t a swimwear model or working with water polo-related companies- she was just attempting to continue her high school job in college. The NCAA wouldn’t allow it.
The rules set forth by the NCAA didn’t make sense to Couch, who, although still wary of the potential negatives that can follow athletes capitalizing on NIL, especially in recruiting, sees the benefits- especially for female athletes.
Just 17.9% of professional athletes are female, placing much of female athletes’ earning potential on their four years of eligibility. This is where Couch, and so many others, see the real opportunities, both in potential and in fairness, arise.
“Especially female athletes, because they don’t get as much attention, and these are sports that aren’t on full scholarship, these are the ones that this really opens so many more doors for,” Couch said.
Unlike football and men’s basketball, many women’s sports at USC and across the country are dominated by athletes on partial or even without a scholarship, making their ability to capitalize on these moments of their athletic career even more important.
Sam McGrath was a defensive specialist/ libero on San Diego State’s women’s volleyball team who graduated in 2020. During her playing career, the idea of NIL laws being enacted was just that- an idea.
What NIL proposed raised red flags for McGrath and her peers on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, who were concerned about an influx of deals being afforded to athletes in sports such as football and men’s basketball, and not to smaller, female-dominated programs.
“As someone in a female sport that like didn’t get a lot of attention, I wasn’t in love with the idea, because if they’re just going to go after all these huge sports or only women’s sports in power five conferences, like how is it going to benefit athletes who aren’t a part of that?”
As a collegiate athlete, McGrath wasn’t allowed to use her name or affiliation with a Division I sport to promote or offer private volleyball lessons in the summers, something that is now permitted through NIL. Though seemingly a small detail, the option to do so made the legislation intriguing.
“I think it can be a step in the right direction, being that more female athletes are getting noticed. They can use like their platforms to expand with brands and even their personal brand.” McGrath said. “It’s really helpful just to be getting eyes on those programs and on those teams.”SAM MCGRATH
Back in 2019, California was the first state to publish a bill that prevented collegiate athletes from being punished for cashing in on NIL-related benefits. The law served as a major catalyst toward the current nationwide NIL laws, and Tyler Shooshani saw this as the start of a massive opportunity.
Shooshani, now a senior at USC, created Inked Sports, an app and agency that connects athletes and brands- specifically focusing on, as Shooshani puts it, the 480,000 college athletes that don’t have big-time agents to secure deals for them.
Empowering athletes to take NIL deals into their own hands creates a greater level of autonomy, especially for female athletes, who are often overlooked by major brands or agencies. Shooshani instead sees this as the largest segment of the market- female athletes.
“It’s crazy to me, no one’s really focusing on these female athletes. It seems so straightforward, because the ones who are spending the most on this 17-billion-dollar industry of influencer marketing are these fashion and beauty brands.”TYLER SHOOSHANI
He’s attempting to bridge the gap, working with both athletes and brands, to realize the potential of a brand-new market.
“It’s honestly time to have more of an investment in female athletes. And I want to be on the forefront of that I want to be helping these girls and helping these brands to truly realize the opportunity that they have for themselves,” Shooshani said. “Just supporting that as much as possible.”
Inked Sports helped Smith secure her first NIL deal- a series of paid posts with Smith sporting Vimmia Active, along with teammate Kaylin Martin. The partnership was lucrative for Smith and the Los Angeles-based activewear company, proving the marketability of female athletes in particular.
Still, the lack of attention on female athletes in the NIL space highlights ever-present disparities between male and female athletes within collegiate athletics.
Now, more than ever, those on the inside have the opportunity to speak out and advocate for the future of sports.
“It’s really empowering to see women being able to call out things that aren’t equal,” Smith said. “That’s something that’d been really great lately- being able to hold people accountable and being able to build platforms.”
NIL turns one year old in July, marking a year of navigating new precedents for collegiate athletics and an ever-changing state of affairs. The work towards equality long way from being finished, but is a year closer to parity.