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On top of tournament inequities, the NCAA's arcane NIL rules hurt women's basketball players most, too

Shalise Manza Young
·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·5-min read

The NCAA paying short shrift to female student-athletes doesn't begin and end with the substandard facilities and COVID-19 tests in the women's March Madness bubble.

Far from it.

It has been evident for quite some time that the organization's ban on athletes being able to profit from their own names, images and likenesses hurt the women in particular.

According to data compiled by sports marketing company Opendorse and published by Axios on Monday, of the 16 women's and men's teams that advanced to the Elite Eight, eight of the top 10 most-followed athletes on Instagram and Twitter are women.

People with huge social media followings can monetize their popularity through sponsored posts, ad revenue on YouTube and other partnerships. They're called "influencers," and what once seemed to this not-so-old person to be an eye-rolling pursuit is now a bona fide way to get paid quite well.

Case in point: Hunter Woodhall. Until recently, Woodhall was a track and field athlete for the University of Arkansas, the first double-amputee to ever receive an athletic scholarship. He's an incredible story: Born without fibulas, his parents decided to let doctors remove his lower legs just below his knees when he was 11 months old. His parents were told he may never walk. Instead, Woodhall, wearing carbon fiber blades, became not just one of the fastest Paralympic runners in the country, but also one of the fastest high schoolers at the 400-meter distance, period.

Woodhall's story, his endearing charm and his equally telegenic and talented girlfriend, Tara Davis, the newly minted NCAA indoor and outdoor long jump record holder, have meant he has millions of combined followers across social media platforms.

And in February, Woodhall announced he was done as a college athlete despite having eligibility remaining. Why? Because he was tired of the NCAA's antiquated rules and wanted to start earning money while also continuing to train for the upcoming Paralympics in Tokyo.

Just a few posts later, he showed himself in front of the house he'd just bought, and said the post was sponsored by Discovery Plus streaming service.

Woodhall told the New York Times that he's earning around $7,500 per post and can easily do 10 a month. You can do the math.

With that in mind, think about UConn super freshman Paige Bueckers. Bueckers' Instagram page has climbed to 705,000-plus followers as of this writing. Yes, Bueckers will play in the WNBA, but league rules mandate how long she must remain in college, and as of right now, there isn't something like the NBA's G League she can join.

UConn's Paige Bueckers is one of many female college athletes missing out on NIL and social media sponsorship money, through no fault of their own. (Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images)
UConn's Paige Bueckers is one of many female college athletes missing out on NIL and social media sponsorship money, through no fault of their own. (Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images)

Imagine if she could start monetizing her Instagram feed now, the way ESPN, which broadcast UConn's Sweet 16 game against Iowa, did everything it could to promote Bueckers vs. fellow freshman phenom Caitlin Clark.

Using a formula that weighs engagement rate, market size and athletic department revenue, Opendorse estimates that Bueckers could make about $380,000 off her social media platforms. Louisville's Hailey Van Lith, playing for a school in a bigger market, has 681,000 followers on Instagram and Opendorse estimates she could make close to $1 million through her social media.

All money that they'll never see, because the NCAA continues to want us to believe that it's just fine for student-athletes to reap zero money off their own faces and names while their coaches can make millions off their players' talent.

The cases that always seemed most galling are in sports where there's really no opportunity to go pro, like gymnastics.

Every year it seems, at least one UCLA gymnast — usually a woman of color — goes viral for an electrifying floor exercise performance. Her skills elevate UCLA's name nationally, create untold recruiting opportunities for the school, and might get her on an episode of "Ellen," but otherwise, she gets nothing.

In January, it was Nia Dennis. Dennis' flawless "Black excellence" routine, which featured some stepping common to Black sorority members, C-walking and so much tumbling, has 3.1 million views on UCLA Athletics' YouTube page. Outside of its women's gymnastics team, that UCLA Athletics page is lucky to get 1,000 views on a video. A year ago, Dennis' homage to Beyonce went viral, and has gotten 4 million views for the Pac-12's YouTube page.

Former teammate Katelyn Ohashi's 2019 National Championship floor routine has netted the NCAA's YouTube page nearly 6 million views.

Imagine if Dennis and Ohashi got even a nickel for every one of those views, while Ohashi was still in college and as Dennis wraps up her college career.

(And please don't trot out the "but they get a free education" line. If a student who is receiving a music scholarship creates a song in their dorm room that goes viral, they can sell the track on iTunes, keep the money and not lose their scholarship.)

Data shows that when it comes to social media consumption, women dominate, and 14.5% of all Instagram users globally are women between 18-24. In the U.S., 56.6% of Instagram users are female. They also create more content.

When the NCAA finally stops telling the lie that letting these student-athletes profit off their own talent will somehow sully their college experience or how we view them, women will reap the benefits and once and for all kill the sexist idea that "no one" cares about female athletes.

Or as Alexis Ohanian, arguably the most visible example of what it means to be a supportive husband of a superstar wife, wrote on Twitter: "The more successful these women become, the more it will enrage the men who continue to discount them, but these same men — who often worship at the altar of the free market — will reckon with the fact that that market doesn't care about their feelings."

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