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How HBCU athletes benefit from NIL deals and a rising profile

Athletes such as Alabama A&M’s Aqeel Glass and Norfolk State’s Rayquan Smith are on the cutting edge

The financial power of student-athletes at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) is realizing the potential for those in the Southwestern Athletic Conference and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference as name, image and likeness (NIL) deals unfold.

Opendorse, a sports technology company, ranked the SWAC as high as No. 11 in total NIL compensation, ahead of more prominent FBS and FCS conferences such as the Atlantic 10, Ivy League and Sun Belt. The SWAC currently sits at No. 18 among 25 total FBS and FCS conferences.

“Research just validated what we have known all along. Our fan base, they’re all loyal to the SWAC [institutions] and SWAC athletes,” said SWAC commissioner Charles McClelland. “When you come to the Southwestern Athletic Conference, your brands will be recognized, and our fan base [is] extremely loyal to those that are loyal to the [SWAC]. We thought that we would be nicely fit within the NIL space, and I think the numbers are bearing it up.”

Aqeel Glass, the 6-foot-4 quarterback from Alabama A&M, was in prime position to capitalize on NIL benefits following a monstrous spring 2021 season. Glass was named the Black College Football Player of the Year, earning him the Deacon Jones Trophy after leading the Bulldogs to a 5-0 record in the spring and their first SWAC title in 15 years. He was also recently named SWAC Offensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season.

Glass partnered with AT&T Dream in Black and the Alabama Department of Public Health for a COVID-19 campaign. Glass also created a T-shirt line, “AG4,” featuring his initials and jersey number. As the SWAC’s top prospect in the upcoming NFL draft, Glass was looking to cultivate brand relationships he could continue into a professional career.

“Since it was my last year in school, I was looking more for long-term relationships that I could build on as I take my career to the next level, and further,” Glass said. “Things like events and brands I believe in, that I stand by [and] I will use. I didn’t get too many offers, but I believe the ones I got were well representative of me.”

FCS student-athletes aren’t given stipends like student-athletes at FBS institutions, so some of Glass’ NIL money went to college necessities and extracurriculars. Glass said he has other ideas for his NIL compensation.

“I’m trying to start saving and things like that, and looking at investments and other things in order to grow my money. I’ve been researching and looking into crypto a lot during the recent wave and boom, also in stocks and bonds,” Glass said. “I think about starting a Roth IRA as soon as possible. That’s about it. But so far, I bought a pair of Jordans. I haven’t really bought too much.”

Arkansas-Pine Bluff junior offensive lineman Mark Evans II is one of four O-linemen named to Denny’s All-Pancaker team and the only FCS and HBCU athlete.

“It taught me what to post and what not to post [and] how to actually market myself to companies and how to make money on social media. I didn’t know that I would be able to make money off of social media unless I had like a million followers. I only got like 1,000, so that’s cool to make money off my name and just basically how to brand myself,” Evans, a Houston native, said.

“It just makes me more marketable as a whole, because as far as companies can see, I have a background with Denny’s. So they won’t be afraid to take the next step and offer me other programs and deals like that. They want to know I have past experience [and] I know how to maneuver, and as far as going along with what they need, what they want and stuff like that.”

The NIL deal has relieved some financial strain for Evans, allowing him to pay his car insurance and help his mother and family. But the game changer for Evans has been the national exposure, which has him weighing his options of pursuing a pro career after his junior year.

“Exposure has been crazy. … I’ve met a lot of wonderful people as well. When I first got [started], it was crazy. I was being interviewed, followers and all of that,” Evans said. “I would say I probably would have gotten [exposure] anyway, but this is probably helping out a lot.”

Norfolk State running back Rayquan Smith is a redshirt sophomore and his ingenuity off the field has earned him the moniker “Mr. NIL.” Smith is a social media influencer with more than 18,000 followers on Instagram and nearly 100,000 followers on TikTok, with more than 2.2 million likes. To date, Smith has had more than 50 NIL deals with lengths ranging from a week to several months.

His biggest deals are with Eastbay, Boost Mobile and the Norfolk Admirals, a midlevel professional hockey franchise that’s an affiliate for the Carolina Hurricanes.

Smith announced in late November he is entering the transfer portal, with three years of eligibility remaining.

Like Jackson State defensive end Antwan Owens, who signed with Black-owned product firm 3Kings Grooming, Smith also partnered with Black-owned brand B Condoms.

“I just wanted to because I could have easily went to Trojan or Magnum, but I want to stay Black-owned. They came to me and I just thought it was a good idea just to show that I’m staying true to my people,” Smith said. “A lot of people didn’t know about this Black-owned company. Since I’ve been partnered with them, a lot of people are really getting into it, so I feel like it really helped.”

Smith’s content creation feeds off things he enjoys perusing in his free time, or content he believes he can re-create and put his own spin on. Balancing school athletics, branding himself and reaching out to different brands and companies is challenging at times, but Smith hopes to fight the stigma that HBCU athletes can’t get NIL deals.

“I’m at an HBCU. It is harder because people don’t look at us because we’re not a Power 5 school,” Smith said. “That’s the whole purpose of me doing this, to show that you don’t have to go to a Power 5 school to get deals and everything. You could be at a small school and get deals — you just have to put the time in.

“Start small. Once you start small, and you start getting deals, and then you start working toward bigger deals. Don’t say you can’t get deals because you had a small school. It doesn’t matter what school you went over to if you brand yourself right. You will get deals. All brands want to see is consistency and see that you’re posting, and they want to see the growth and engagement with your deals.”

Researcher and assistant professor Thilo Kunkel of Temple University’s School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management believes that HBCUs and student-athletes have an advantage in attracting NIL partnerships and sponsors over other smaller schools.

“The HBCU community certainly has a big advantage because it’s centered around a community. If you compare that to a lower division, that is just a lower division program, because there has traditionally not been a strong conference that is inherently different,” Kunkel said. “Whereas the HBCUs have a really tight-knit community, it’s centered around it and has its own brand, essentially. So I think in that sense, it’s already unique, which is really helpful for brand building.

“That’s where the opportunity is for athletes at HBCU communities or any athlete at smaller schools that aren’t in the spotlight every week on national television. … There’s a lot of these, a lot of these stakeholders at these universities. They have really powerful alumni, whether they’re other athletes that come from that university. So I think there’s a lot of potential there to tap into the network of these HBCU communities, because they also see that it’s a really tight-knit community that wants to support each other.”

Connecting with stakeholders and the local community aided the Howard men’s basketball program when the team signed a NIL deal with Washington moving company College Hunks Hauling Junk. Howard men’s basketball head coach Kenneth Blakeney hopes his players use funds from the deal responsibly.

“I hope they have some stock, some new stocks or some bitcoins or something. Those are the kind of things that I would be emphasizing to them to take a look at,” Blakeney said. “For a lot of our young men, the money that they generated during this ad campaign is really beneficial and helpful to them and their families.”

Although decades removed from his days as a student-athlete at Duke under head coach Mike Krzyzewski and a member of the back-to-back championship teams in 1991 and 1992, Blakeney wants to use his team’s NIL deal and upcoming holiday break as an opportunity for a teachable moment.

“I think I would have dabbled in [NIL] too much,” Blakeney said, laughing when talking about his days as a student-athlete. “I want them to understand that there’s a responsibility with that. Let’s not just flush it down the toilet on something that I don’t think will last longer than six months, or eight months. You can take that and buy a share of stock in something that could add value in a couple of years. I want young men in our program to be looking at situations and opportunities of trying to create long-standing value and worth for themselves and for their family.”

Mia Berry is a 2020 graduate of Notre Dame University with a B.A. degree in film, TV and theatre. She is the HBCU reporter for The Undefeated.