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NIL agreements could expose enduring racial, sexual inequities

This new era of opportunity for college athletes carries with it old, enduring inequities, especially regarding how an athlete’s racial and/or sexual identity determines her “value.”

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In 1980, twins Faye and Kaye Young secured one of the first national endorsement deals for women’s basketball players.

The Youngs, who played at North Carolina State from 1976-79 before signing with the New York Stars of the short-lived Women’s Professional Basketball League (WBL) in 1979, became the faces of Dannon Yougurt’s national ad campaign.

Although few Americans were aware of the fledging WBL or New York Stars, they knew of the Dannon Yogurt twins.

More 30 years later, another pair of hooping twins are making women’s basketball endorsement history — Haley and Hanna Cavinder.

On July 1, the NCAA’s new name, image and likeness (NIL) policy went into effect, allowing college athletes “to benefit from their name, image and likeness” by signing endorsement deals. The Cavinders, rising juniors at Fresno State who have nearly-five million combined followers on Instagram and TikTok, quickly became the faces of the NIL policy, inking deals with Six Star Pro Nutrition and Boost Mobile. While the terms of these agreements have not been disclosed, Sports Illustrated described their Boost Mobile contract as “a whopper of a deal.” It is estimated that the two deals will net the twins an income into five figures. The Cavinders and their representative also indicate that more agreements will be announced.

The Cavinders’ endorsements are illustrative of how much has changed for women’s basketball players, especially women’s college basketball players. When the Youngs played at NC State, earning an income for endorsements was impossible, just as it has been for the many more-heralded hoopers who have played in Knoxville, Storrs, South Bend, Palo Alto, Waco, Columbia and beyond over the past three decades.

However, that the Cavinders instantly emerged as NIL darlings suggests that much has not changed when it comes to women’s basketball players and endorsement opportunities.

Although it can be expected that many Black, brown and/or queer athletes will announce endorsement agreements in the coming weeks and months, NIL deals have the potential to expose how certain privileges operate to determine the “value” of a college athlete who plays women’s basketball.

Yes, the new NIL policy opens up a free market of financial opportunity for college athletes. Yet, the infrastructure of this free market is not free of biases of race, gender and sexuality.

Why Faye and Kaye Young were the faces of the WBL

On the Youngs, the New York Stars and the WBL, the blog Fun While It Lasted notes:

To the extent that the media took an interest in the Stars and the WBL, they largely ignored the league’s emerging black stars like (Althea) Gwynn [a 6-foot-2 center from Queens College who led the league in rebounding], in favor of a handful of telegenic blonde players....especially, Kaye and Faye Young of the Stars. The identical 5′ 11″ twins out of North Carolina State played for the Stars from 1978 to 1980.

In Mad Seasons, her book on the WBL, author Karra Porter writes that, at times, New York Stars management asked them to “put marketing above basketball.”

Former WNBA president Donna Orender, who played in the WBL, likewise emphasized the premium the league placed on appearances in its marketing efforts, telling Porter:

I think the league tended to go with blondes. I can’t tell you a dark-haired girl that was marketed.

Although Althea Gwynn, a three-time All-Star for the Stars, insisted she maintained positive personal relationships with the Youngs, she, like Orender, could not help but resent the WBL’s promotional priorities, sharing with Porter:

Everybody wanted to be where they were. They had a product to sell, and that is what they were looking for then, two twins — two white twins ...

Things to monitor

As former Notre Dame head coach Muffett McGraw told Sports Illustrated, “Women are pretty good on social media, and now they can get paid for that. If you can find a way to make a million dollars for selling what you’ve got, do it.”

However, considering that many women’s college basketball players and teams, following in the footsteps of their big sisters in WNBA, have pushed to make racial equity a guiding principle of their programs, it will be relevant if NIL contracts reveal the continued existence of a racial hierarchy, where an athlete’s skin color, as well as her perceived gender conformity, is a significant factor in the valuation of her individual brand.

Comparing and contrasting how the likes of UConn’s Paige Bueckers, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, South Carolina’s Aaliyah Boston and Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith profit from the new NIL policy should say a lot about issues of equity. All four are coming off strong seasons and impressive NCAA tournament runs, suggesting that, based on the intersection of individual ability and expected team success, they should be situated to receive comparable endorsement opportunities.

While slightly distinct from the Cavinders’ image, Bueckers and Clark fit another longstanding women’s basketball player model — the “girl next door.” From Rebecca Lobo to Sue Bird to Elena Delle Donne to Sabrina Ionescu, exceptionally-talented white women’s basketball players who are understood to communicate a comforting middle-class familiarity have achieved significant popularity. Boston and Smith, in contrast, do not conform to long-established archetypes. A native of St. Thomas, Boston exudes a modern brand of Black womanhood, with bright-colored braids that prove to perfectly match her infectious personality. Often wearing dreads or natural hair, the swaggering Smith presents herself as casually confident in her lack of concern for conventional norms.

So far, Boston, as well as teammate Brea Beal, have announced agreements with Cameo. Among other prominent women’s college basketball players, Maryland’s Ashley Owusu and Notre Dame’s Sam Brunelle have partnered with Yoke Gaming, a platform that allows college athletes to play against each other and fans.

Possibly, we will see a significant number of women college hoopers of color signing national deals that rival the Cavinders’ contracts. Recent developments involving WNBA players, however, suggest expectations should be tempered. Despite the WNBPA’s concerted efforts to elevate the Black women who are the backbone of the league, white players have continued to receive some of the most prestigious honors, endorsements and opportunities.

The lack of attention to the South Carolina Gamecocks — a majority Black team with a Black head coach — in the aftermath of the foreshortening of the 2020 season also does not inspire confidence. Speaking to The Undefeated in the wake of the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA tournament, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley shared:

I’ve got to answer to why do they [the media] disrespect us like this. That’s what came across my phone [via text messages from her players], and I don’t have answers for them. But I know that the people who decide on what narrative to write about women’s basketball, they got it wrong....We were the No. 1 team in the country longer than anybody this season. We didn’t get treated like the No. 1 team in the country.

How significantly will the NIL policy influence the culture of women’s basketball programs?

While not addressing how an athlete’s racial and/or sexual identity could determine the NIL deals she does, or does not, receive, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma’s concerns about the potential ramifications of NIL contracts on teams are relevant. According to The Athletic, Auriemma posited:

Now you’re asking 18-year-olds: ‘Do you understand that there’s no demand for you? And there’s a lot of demand for her or these three and none for you?...But I don’t see how you can keep it out of the locker room, keep it out of your team dynamics.

For some young women who play college basketball, the new NIL policy will open up a whole new world of entrepreneurial opportunity, financial independence and public notoriety. For others, it won’t. What athletes are on either side of this equation will be worth monitoring.