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As Caleb Williams was leading Oklahoma back from the dead, from down 21 to the biggest comeback in Red River history, phones across America began buzzing. Williams, a true freshman, had never started a college football game before. As he engineered touchdown drives, his star brightening by the play, fans took notice.
So, too, did companies.
Zach Soskin, an athlete brand builder, was texting with people who work for them. “People who write pretty significant checks to athletes,” he says. People who, under the NCAA’s new Name, Image and Likeness rules, can sign players to endorsement deals. All of them, Soskin says, were watching Williams, “Waiting to see, what does this kid have to say? What type of person is he? How will he handle himself postgame?"
They watched, and watched, waiting for an interview that never happened.
ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe asked for one. Williams, she said in a since-deleted tweet, “Expected to be interviewed.” But head coach Lincoln Riley, who himself gave an on-camera interview, “Said no.” Oklahoma also did not make Williams available to other reporters.
And that rankled athlete advocates, because Williams’ moment in the spotlight, with millions watching on ABC, was what Soskin called an “opportunity to have a ‘hello world’ interview and send his brand/earnings through the roof.”
“Media time leads to media attention, which leads to follower growth, which leads to NIL opportunities,” explains Blake Lawrence, the CEO of Opendorse, a sports marketing firm.
Companies, Soskin says, “Are looking for someone who can represent their brand. And how can they know [whether Williams can do] that if he's not allowed to talk?”
Ellen Staurowsky, an Ithaca College professor who has studied the market value of college athletes, says: “There is no question that an athlete like Caleb Williams, who puts in an outstanding performance and is deprived of an opportunity to speak on a national stage, is negatively affected by that in terms of potential financial opportunities.”
An Oklahoma spokesman did not respond to an email asking why Williams wasn’t made available for interviews. The reasoning likely falls in line with a policy that isn’t uncommon throughout college football. Many top coaches, for years, haven’t allowed true freshmen to talk to the media. Prior to the NIL era, some saw the policies as overbearing, as what Staurowsky calls “an exercise in control”; others reasonably defended them as well-intentioned, as safeguards against the pressures of teen celebrity.
But now, NIL experts say, they’re costly — and could soon be extinct.
'It's important to fix [things] for that next kid'
Williams, experts say, will still have plenty of financial opportunity. Most agree that Oklahoma and Riley didn’t necessarily, directly, cost him money. “I think his performance on the field will generate enough buzz,” says Peter Schoenthal, the CEO of Athliance, an NIL company.
“He's gonna be a star that has a big future,” Soskin says. NIL money, and perhaps NFL money, will be a part of that future.
And even if Williams’ football career doesn’t go to plan, “He can make money off this moment ’til the day he dies,” Soskin assures. “He can sign Red River Rivalry memorabilia, or do local Oklahoma commercials about this. … No matter what happens now, he can own a sports bar in Norman, or something.”
But what if Williams had “crushed the interview,” as Soskin expects he would have? “If he's mature, gracious, humble,” Soskin says, or if he’d conjured an iconic line, his marketability could have soared.
And what if, instead of a five-star recruit at a blueblood, he was an out-of-nowhere, temporary star? “What if,” Soskin continues, “he was a freshman who didn't come from much and just had lightning strike in the biggest game?
“It's important to fix [these policies] for that next kid.”
Because the height of that kid’s earning power, according to Staurowsky, “is now, not five years from now.”
And because “personal branding and storytelling are critical elements to unlocking NIL value,” says David Carter, founder of the Sports Business Group and a founding partner at NIL company Altius. Interviews, of course, are storytelling opportunities.
“Any hindrance to that,” Carter continues, “will prove detrimental to both the athlete, in terms of potential revenue, and the school, given potential recruiting impacts.”
Why it'll inevitably change
And this is why many experts expect these policies to disappear. “Recruits,” Carter explains, “may be less interested in programs that prohibit or otherwise limit them from continuing to tell and monetize their story.” Schoenthal compares it to the very early NIL days, when schools initially balked at allowing athletes to use the university’s logo in personal branding. “And then we started hearing that it was being used against them in recruiting,” Schoenthal says. “So schools started loosening their restrictions on athletes, and allowing them to use trademark logos, so long as they’re asking permission before.”
Any similarly restrictive policies, such as freshman media policies, will be highlighted by rival coaches in recruiting battles. “Schools are going to use anything they can to boost their own program and maybe take a shot at another program,” Schoenthal says.
Says Soskin: “You bet your butt, the next time somebody's recruiting against Lincoln Riley, they'll bring it up.”
And so, “over time,” Carter says, “such policies will eventually fade.”
Soskin points out that none of them was crafted explicitly to limit NIL earning potential. “Oklahoma does a relatively great job of building their players' brands,” he says. “Lincoln Riley's generally pretty pro-player.” The policy, instead, “is just a rule that they forgot to change.” The NCAA spent months denying the inevitability of the NIL era, leaving schools unprepared to navigate uncharted waters. “It didn't give programs and coaches the time to react in all of the ways they should,” Soskin says.
They are, instead, reacting on the fly. Some experts expect it to be a few years until all freshman media policies are retracted. Others think the open market will accelerate change. Soskin could see a wave of it “after this season.”
“Or,” he says, “maybe even starting tomorrow.”