One of many paradigmatic shifts that have hit collegiate athletes over recent years is the NCAA’s decision to let athletes capitalize off their own name, image and likeness (NIL) — changing the game of how athletes can make money, and forcing schools to scramble to address new expectations from collegiate players. NIL has emerged as a pivotal factor in attracting recruits and getting additions from the transfer portal.
But Stanford, which boasts one of the most successful athletics departments and influential alumni bases nationwide, has been more cautious about taking a proactive approach with regard to NIL, as compared to other schools.
“We won’t be using NIL as a recruiting tool,” said football head coach Troy Taylor in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “And I don’t see that changing.”
In order to fully understand Stanford’s lukewarm approach to NIL, it’s important to consider the background on the landscape of NIL opportunities across collegiate athletics today.
NIL across college football
Originally, the prevailing idea was that NIL would be a decentralized network of athletes and companies connecting and agreeing to brand deals. But now, within the NIL space, collectives have emerged as the go-to model to centralize the management of NIL funds for a given school. Collectives are structurally independent from the school, but pool together cash from boosters and fans to give to athletes, usually in exchange for commercial activity.
For example, Horns with Heart is an NIL collective associated with the University of Texas. Back in 2021, it announced it would pay Longhorn offensive linemen $50,000 annually in exchange for promoting charitable causes. Right now, 92% of power conference schools have at least one NIL collective.
Some collectives have come under more scrutiny recently, as many of the most powerful collectives have become disproportionately influential in recruiting, which is not allowed according to NCAA rules. For example, four-star quarterback Jaden Rashada’s decommitment from Florida in January made national headlines, as a reported 13.85 million dollar NIL deal promised by a collective fell through.
Stanford has been conspicuously absent from the NIL space, opting to disregard NIL payments for its competitive advantage. However, that hasn’t prevented alumni from trying to support the program from the outside.
Last year, former Stanford goalkeeper Allen Thorpe ‘92 established Lifetime Cardinal, Stanford’s only NIL collective, with the aim of making the Cardinal more competitive in the realm of NIL. However, Lifetime Cardinal is different from other NIL collectives, utilizing an ethos more congruent with Stanford as an institution.
“For the vast majority of Stanford student athletes, you’re doing them a disservice if you’re trying to help them become an influencer,” said Thorpe. “That seems crazy to me. These are really smart people who are accomplished athletes getting a Stanford education.”
Currently, Lifetime Cardinal serves the football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball and women’s gymnastics teams, but is looking to expand to other sports in the future. According to Thorpe, in the near-term, the collective is most focused on taking its non-profit marketing work to the next level, engaging corporate partners and enhancing its career initiatives.
With the help of alumni boosters, Lifetime Cardinal was able to distribute its first $5,000 payment to each football player this past spring, with a second payment coming sometime this fall. Around 20 players will make upwards of $50,000 with the fall payments. It was also reported that the Cardinal One collective, a former sister collective to Lifetime Cardinal that now operates under the same umbrella, paid each men’s basketball player $50,000 at the start of the 2022-23 basketball season.
With the help of Lifetime Cardinal, an increasing number of Stanford players now have an NIL deal attached to their name. The Stanford Athletics Compliance office declined to release information to The Daily about the number of student athletes that currently possess an NIL deal and the total valuation of these deals. However, Stanford’s Faculty Athletics Representative Jeffrey Koseff told The Daily that “around 200 or a quarter of student athletes have some kind of NIL deal.”
While adhering closely to the official regulations and core principles of NIL, Stanford has decided not to partake in the NCAA’s listed activities that could benefit the collective, including direct fundraising efforts toward the collective, despite similar policies being adopted at other schools. Moreover, it was previously reported that the collective’s representatives were blocked from using athletic facilities last fall to meet with the team, which resulted in the collective having to meet with the team in a tailgating area near the practice field.
These actions beg the question: Why has Stanford taken such a timid approach to NIL?
Stanford’s lukewarm approach to NIL
An alumni donor with knowledge of the athletics department told The Daily that former President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and former provost Persis Drell were partially responsible for Stanford’s tepid approach to NIL.
“They just don’t like the idea of paying players, so there’s a philosophical objection to begin with,” the source said.
The source also said “they’re worried about Title IX. Their concern is that if they are helpful to any [NIL] collective that is not equitable between men and women, it might make them appear non-Title IX compliant.”
Moreover, the source went on to say that both former head football coach David Shaw and current head coach Troy Taylor have a similar orientation toward NIL. He also dispelled the notion that Shaw was opposed to NIL. “David Shaw was not opposed to NIL — all of his bosses were negative on NIL,” the source said.
The athletics department’s halfhearted approach to NIL is in opposition to schools across the Power-Five, particularly those schools residing in the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
“I would say the typical SEC school would look at NIL and say, how can we use this to help us win,” said Ivan Maisel ‘81, a former college football reporter for ESPN and On3.com. “Stanford looks at NIL and says, how can we stay true to our values and see if we can use those to help us.”
The NIL saga is just another example of strife between the athletics community and the Stanford administration. This battle reached its peak in 2020 when the University announced it would cut 11 varsity sports. While the announcement was later retracted, it served as a reminder of the Stanford community’s attachment to sports.
“I think it came as a surprise, as Drell learned with the suspension of all those sports, just how engaged the greater Stanford community is in sports,” Maisel said. “And it was an expensive lesson to learn both in terms of actual money as well as time and energy.”
“We are proud of our athletics programs and are working hard to support our student-athletes through a period of major change in collegiate athletics,” wrote University spokesperson Dee Mostofi in an email to The Daily, in response to criticism that the University does not prioritize athletics and NIL in particular.
“As president, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne was involved with Pac-12 leadership for many years and led Stanford’s conference realignment efforts,” she wrote. “We will continue to provide our student-athletes with robust education and other NIL-related services through Cardinal Connect.”
However, even with key administrative changes of the provost and president, others don’t foresee any significant alterations coming to the University’s NIL policy.
“I don’t see major changes coming. I just feel like we have a fundamental first principles approach to it,” Koseff said. “Where I think things will evolve, which I suspect would’ve been followed by the prior leadership, is the degree to which we develop educational materials for students and the degree to which we might interact with the collectives.”
In the meantime, Stanford alumni and fans are still left pondering whether Stanford can survive in this new era of collegiate athletics without adopting an aggressive stance with NIL, particularly in revenue-generating sports.
“I think the typical alumna or alumnae wants Stanford to succeed,” Maisel said. “It became apparent in the last 24 months that to be successful, you have to figure out a way to accommodate [NIL]. I don’t think anybody wants Stanford to step outside of its values to do it, but people do want the University to figure out how we can do this.”