Jones | How we can leverage NIL to unlock Stanford’s full potential

Published June 7, 2024, 4:18 a.m., last updated June 7, 2024, 8:01 p.m.

I’ll always keep my high school graduation pamphlet. Because in May of 2019, despite all my accomplishment and promise, it still read “undecided” by my name. It brings me a slight chuckle now, but then I was a dejected high school senior with no idea where my future would start. I applied and got accepted to some good academic colleges, but none of them gave me opportunities in basketball. Moreover, my parents already had a huge burden paying for college for my other siblings. At that point, I, reluctantly, was planning to take a post-graduate year to get better basketball prospects and earn a scholarship. 

Then, I got lucky. A couple weeks before my high school graduation, Coach Haase gave me the opportunity to visit Stanford and essentially try out for the team. I played well and subsequently got an offer. 

The opportunity changed my life. I knew it would. My father went to Harvard, so I was familiar with what an elite education could offer. It’s part of the reason I’ve stayed loyal to the program and didn’t transfer: Stanford took the chance when no other program would. 

But in an age where college athletes can now be paid upwards of six-to-seven figures a year from NIL collectives, demonstrating the value of a Stanford degree is becoming increasingly challenging.

Despite this challenge, some players are still able to stick with Stanford even when faced with lucrative opportunities in front of them.

“Obviously NIL is a big part of the game now. I did enter the transfer portal to explore other options and see what other programs had to offer. I think that gave me more leverage to negotiate with Stanford,” said Stanford center Maxime Raynaud. “There were some big numbers, more than seven figures, but the money and network a Stanford degree is worth over the next 40 years is way better.”

But those of us who stay, those of us who commit here, we are aware of the full benefits of higher education. The benefits that go beyond a higher salary. And that is because we have often seen it firsthand through friends or family, or have been in positions to be taught it. But what about those who have had limited exposure? 

For many, the transformative power of education might seem distant or abstract. They might not see how it can broaden one’s perspective, foster critical thinking, or create opportunities for personal growth and community engagement. 

And even for those who stay, there are still doubts. 

“I’m skeptical about a Stanford degree helping me in the future just because of all the teammates I’ve seen struggle with finding jobs recently,” a former Stanford football offensive player told me.

It is our responsibility to bridge that gap, to share our experiences and to demonstrate that the true value of education is not just in the tangible outcomes, but in the lifelong skills and insights it provides.

Toward the end of the 2023 season, I hired an NIL agent to help me scope out the landscape to learn what I could earn from NIL collectives without officially entering the transfer portal. The agent told me that I could make around twice as much as I made at Stanford during my fifth year. 

I say that not to denounce Stanford. In fact, I was very appreciative of what they offered and the steps we’ve made in the NIL space. But, I mention this to illustrate the new barriers to a Stanford education. Not only does an athlete have to be physically gifted and obtain exceptional grades, but they also have to be immune to the allure of immediate profitability. 

I believe that we need to rally alumni to support Stanford’s NIL efforts, alleviating the exclusivity between immediate money and earning a valuable degree. The efforts by the University have been admirable, as Stanford sits among the middle-of-the-pack in the ACC in terms of NIL money. Money is not our main selling point, nor should it ever be. But, we fall behind in the other areas of NIL as well. Especially in areas where we should thrive. 

It’s important to note that despite some rumors, many athletes who elect to transfer from Stanford aren’t doing so for NIL reasons. 

“Personally, I did not transfer for NIL reasons. I simply wanted a better overall experience that Stanford wasn’t providing me with,” the former Stanford offensive player said. “I was offered some money to stay at Stanford but turned it down. I still made a little bit at my next school but it was hardly anything.”

“The Stanford community isn’t nearly as bought into athletics as many other Power 5 universities are,” said a former Stanford former defensive player. “Which is okay, but there is certainly value in a greater number of people being familiar and interested in what you’re doing.

But most importantly beyond income opportunities, Stanford needs to more tangibly demonstrate the value of a Stanford degree to prospective college athletes. This could include an internship program for athletes or increased engagement with successful alumni. 

“I think Stanford needs to have a better way to make people and donors and other alumni feel connected,” the former offensive player said. “As an athlete, we don’t have time to go searching for all these people like normal students do. Which is what my next school did very well for us all this past year even being there for only one year.”

One of the biggest factors that got me to overlook the money I was leaving behind was the increased presence of alumni involved in my re-recruitment. It opened my eyes to how many people were truly invested in me and the program. That combined with flexible internship opportunities that worked around my schedule made coming back an easy decision. 

At the end of the day, when I interviewed many of the former athletes that have transferred, very few, if any, mentioned money as playing a large role. Instead they mentioned community, especially with alumni.

Yes, part of networking is learning to use your voice and initiative to get what you want, but we can certainly make it easier. It’s not enough to have a banquet once a year or a handshake before and after games. The presence is always appreciated, but the interaction often feels a bit transactional. 

We need more ways to foster organic interactions. Ideas like alumni pickup games or flag football where the athletes coach; dinners or lunches at alum’s houses away from athletic facilities; and open up avenues for athlete-specific internships that are flexible towards are schedules and truly help us cultivate the human capital we sought when we came here.

Because of this unique athlete environment, I believe that Stanford is positioned to be rooted in the old-school values of college athletics while embracing the newfound freedom athletes have to profit off their NIL. 

“I wanted to be challenged as an individual and as a man and that is exactly what Stanford has continued to do for me,” sophomore EDGE David Bailey said. 

“The degree is just a small part of the equation here. I think more important is the people that you meet and the impact they leave on you and vice versa, the impact that you leave on them. I think building those relationships with people that have the disposition and ambition to get into Stanford in the first place is what sets you up for success.”

As we move into a new era of collegiate athletics, I believe that Stanford can be uniquely positioned to succeed. But we have to have the wherewithal to show prospective athletes why we’re one of the best universities in the nation. Not everyone is fortunate enough to see Stanford and higher education through the same lense. And while, NIL certainly has the capacity to narrow that vision, I believe we can leverage it to widen that lens and create opportunities for those who got lucky, like me.

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