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NIL, Athletic Identity, and Motivation
NIL is big business, but it's psychological impacts shouldn't be overlooked
Last year the NCAA ruled that college athletes can legally profit off their own name, image, and likeness (NIL). This past year we have seen NIL deals ranging from a few hundred dollars a season to well over a million. The nature of these deals has cast an equally wide net, with some athletes appearing on TV commercials, while others are starting GoFundMe campaigns to raise money for cancer.
The ruling has raised a considerable amount of speculation about the impact that NIL will have going forward. And while most of the discussion follows the financial and legal implications, I believe this new NCAA landscape can have psychological and performance impacts too. Let’s explore.
One of the major upsides to NIL is that it gives athletes the chance to define aspects of their identity—their non-athletic identity, in particular. The opportunity to be paid for personal interests outside of their sport now enables athletes to pursue them to a greater extent. Ra'Sun Kazadi, a safety at SMU, is one example of this. Before the rule change, Kazadi not allowed to put his name on any of his artwork. Though he was still able to make small profits here and there, NIL now affords him the chance to scale and promote his artwork, using his name as a vehicle for expanding his business. (Full story linked here).
Why is this important? Because athletes are intersectional beings that are defined by more than just on-field feats. Athletes that that a singularly defined identity may feel trapped in their sport, unable to leave because they’ve invested so much. This may lead to feelings of burnout. Moreover, it can make transitioning out of sport incredibly difficult. Going from athlete to non-athlete is already hard enough for some individuals, even when that transition is expected (graduation, retirement, etc.). But imagine an athlete who’s forced to medically retire unexpectedly? The prospect of a life without sport is a scary outlook for some, and without any opportunity to explore personal interests and hobbies outside of performance makes can make this process even more difficult. I believe NIL has the potential to help dampen this process by opening doors for athletes to pursue personal interests and shape their identity in the process. However, the importance of agreeing to deals that are personally meaningful may also impact motivation.
Motivation is how, why, and the extent to which one directs their efforts. It’s modulated by several factors, both internal (intrinsic) and external (extrinsic). The actual amount of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation may vary depend on the individual and the task, but it’s important to recognize that internal and external rewards can be equally effective in motivating someone. Total motivation can be though of as the sum of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
NIL can be incredibly motivating from an extrinsic point of view, payment being a particularly strong motivator, especially for students who don’t have time to pick up a job in addition to the demands of being a student athlete. The perks that come with sponsorships can be extrinsically rewarding as well. External motivators can be powerful and their influence has even trickled down to even the high school level, motivating some students to relocate to states in which they are eligible for NIL compensation, as reported in one story by The Athletic.
Intrinsic motivation is slightly more complicated, but personal autonomy plays a large role in fostering one’s internal drive. Having a say in the process keeps people motivated. NIL is unique in that athletes are ultimately the decision makers. They make the choice about what partnerships they want to form, which brands they want to represent, or—like Ra'Sun Kazadi—how they want to build and shape their own brand and sense of self. It is this type of autonomy can contribute to an athlete’s internal drive.
The challenge with any source of motivation is how sustainable it is. Ideally, your motivation doesn’t just get you started, but continually directs your efforts going forward. This is why intrinsic motivation is often favored over extrinsic. Those that are intrinsically motivated are acting out of their own accord and personal interest. Those who are extrinsically motivated may find that rewards and other extrinsic factors have to become larger and larger over time in order to sustain their motivation.
Importantly, the source—whether intrinsic or extrinsic—has to be viewed as motivating, rather than controlling.
This is especially true for college athletics, which are inherently transactional. Athletes receive scholarships for their dedication and commitment to the school’s athletic programs. Their perception of this transaction matters.
Cognitive evaluation theory suggests that external factors can modulate intrinsic motivation depending on if they are viewed as informative or controlling. When external rewards are viewed as controlling, intrinsic motivation is undermined. This would be the case for an athlete who’s coach is threatening to take away their scholarship if they don’t perform better, or an athlete who cannot afford college without a scholarship and must play well to keep their spot. The external reward becomes an ultimatum, and athletes may find themselves performing to avoid the consequence, rather than playing for personal goals and values. Those that view their scholarship as informative, however, see it as an external reward that informs and reminds them of their hard work and talent, which can enhance intrinsic motivation.
Thus, as NIL establishes itself among the college and even high school scenes, athlete’s perception of endorsement and sponsorship opportunities seems just as important. And while there is no formal evidence or research that I’m aware of to confirm this hypothesis, it seems that an athlete’s view of an NIL opportunity can impact their levels of motivation in the long run. If it’s seen as controlling, it’s likely to undermine intrinsic motivation, but if it’s viewed as informative, it will likely enhance it and lead to more sustainable levels of motivation over time.
NIL is a large and complex system. As if being a student athlete isn’t hard enough already, understanding the nuances and legalese of NIL and NCAA rulings is only adding to these demands. And while lawyers, consulting firms, and talent agencies are spreading like wildfire, I believe that athletes should remain the focus and continue to advocate for their desired experiences whether they are on the field or in a business meeting. Based on the discussion above regarding identity and motivation, here are some suggestions for navigating NIL that can be used by athletes, or those that supporting athletes (e.g., family, friends, coaches, mental performance consultants, agencies, etc.).
“Keep the main thing the main thing.” This was a statement Lonzo Ball made when his father Lavar and Big Baller Brand were making waves in the NCAA and NBA scenes. In other words, know what’s most important. Discuss what’s important with your family and friends. Discuss them with an agent, if you have one. Aligning deals with your values and what’s personally important to you can help with this process. It’s important for everyone (athlete, coach, family, agent, consultant, etc.) to recognize that the main thing might not be sport! Professional athletics/performance is not the end goal for everyone. Yet, sports are an amazing vehicle for personal and professional development. Therefore, know what the main thing is and strive (or support them in striving) toward it.
Engage in deals/partnerships that align with your values and personal interests when possible. “Athlete’s don’t live in a vacuum” is something we are hearing more of these days (thankfully). Thus, deals that check the income box and align with personal interests/passions can contribute to the multifaceted individual you are. Honoring these to a greater extent interests/passions might feel pretty good.
Make a choice in how you want to be involved. This doesn’t mean you have to be involved, but more so the extent to which you want to. If you want to be all in, wheeling and dealing, great. If you don’t want to be and would rather an agent or talent firm handle it, that’s great too. The idea here is give yourself some autonomy. Doing so can foster your levels of intrinsic motivation and may be helpful in sustaining your overall levels of motivation over time.
No threads, no hacks—just science and it’s applications. 🧠 📈