Why this matters
While name, image, and likeness represents a new breakthrough in the sports industry and for collegiate athletics, the breakdown of who gets attention and strikes deals is not new.
The moment Paige Bueckers first laced up her shoes to play college basketball, it was clear she was going to be a star with crossover appeal. With name, image, and likeness (NIL) agreements set to commence in the summer of 2021, I predicted Bueckers, a star guard for the University of Connecticut, would be the biggest benefactor.
My Twitter grammar was off, but the prediction was spot on. Bueckers’ NIL success was easy to predict. She was a great basketball player with an affable personality to match. Her presence on social media packaged her as an everyday teen who just happened to be great at basketball. But equally important to this conversation is the fact that Bueckers is White.
When women athletes first started to sign major NIL deals in basketball, it was the blonde ballers who hit big. Players like twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder of Fresno State University, Cameron Brink of Stanford University, and Bueckers made out well. It’s not that they aren’t talented or that they don’t deserve endorsements. The Cavinder twins have exceptional guard skills that they often show off on their Instagram pages, where combined they have more than 600,000 followers. Brink, a sophomore, is a national champion and already one of the best post players in college basketball. Bueckers is the reigning national player of the year.
But they are also White women, and, historically, that has been a key factor in how companies decide to promote their products. As sports historian and Global Sport Matters contributor Amira Rose Davis says, “there’s a double bind for black women, because there are already constraints on what women athletes are seen to be marketed as. In that smaller part of women athletes, Blackness constrains them even more, so what they are left with are the crumbs.”
While ultra-talented Black women like the University of Maryland’s Ashley Owusu and the University of South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston have signed NIL deals, those agreements haven’t been as prominent as the ones landed by their White counterparts. Boston, arguably the best player in the country, signed a local NIL deal with the Southern chain restaurant Bojangles. The Cavinders signed with Boost Mobile, the wireless telecommunications company. Recently, Bueckers became the first college athlete to sign a deal with sports drink brand Gatorade. All of this was easy to predict. History told me that White women athletes would be the ones to reap the most rewards from the new era.
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Since the ascendance of Black women amateur athletes in post-World War II America, Black women athletes have struggled to get their fair share of endorsements. This story starts in the 1960s with track stars Wilma Rudolph and Wyomia Tyus. Rudolph won three gold medals during the 1960 Rome Olympics. And in 1968, Tyus was the first Olympic athlete to win back-to-back gold medals after she repeated her 1964 feat. Yet, despite their popularity, the women received no endorsements. As sports historians Rita Liberti and Mary G. McDonald have written, “Despite her extraordinary performance on the track, Tyus and other Black women were unable to leverage their athletic achievements as a springboard to other opportunities.”
It got so bad for Tyus that the Los Angeles Sentinel, a Black newspaper, printed a mock classified ad stating Tyus “won fame and glory for the U.S. in two Olympic Games and now all she is asking is for some employer to let her earn some of those pretty little green ones. Miss Tyus’s gold medals and 35-cents will buy her a loaf of bread. Her gold medals don’t mean a thing at the grocery store.” Looking back at her snub, Rudolph reflected, “There just wasn’t anything open for blacks. The opportunities weren’t there.” On the other hand, White figure skater Peggy Fleming made out well after the Olympics, a point not lost on others. Sprinter Vince Matthews, who was kicked out of the 1972 Olympics for his protest on the medal stand, rhetorically asked, “Peggy Fleming didn’t do anything bigger in her sport in 1968 than Wilma Rudolph did in hers in 1960, so where’s Wilma?”
Two decades later, the story was no different for Evelyn Ashford. Since the late 1970s, Ashford had been the top American sprinter, but coming into the 1984 Games, she had yet to sign a major deal beyond a typical shoe contract. Mary Decker, the White top middle-distance runner at the time, however, was making an estimated $500,000 a year. In the U.S. track circuit, that placed her only behind Carl Lewis. When asked about the lack of endorsements before the Games, Ashford said “The situation for black women athletes getting major contracts for endorsements, commercials and movies is not much better than the plight of black actresses. Historically, institutional barriers have kept black women out.”
In another interview, Ashford cut right to the chase and said, “I could win an Olympic gold medal, and Mary (Decker) would still get three times as many endorsements.” Ashford, an optimist, still held out hope that Olympic success would bring her the endorsement money she deserved. After she set the 100-meter world record in 10.79 seconds, however, it was White gymnast Mary Lou Retton raking in the rewards. The new media darling made a reported $1.8 million. Valerie Brisco-Hooks, a Black woman who won three gold medals herself in track and field, also received hardly a sniff.
Even track and field superstar Jackie Joyner-Kersee, widely considered the greatest woman athlete of all time, experienced this discriminatory slight. The most dominant athlete of her generation didn’t even receive phone calls from would-be suitors despite winning the 1986 Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete, prompting her husband to wonder, “You would have to ask American corporations if it is possible for an American black female athlete to endorse a product. You have to ask them, if there is no racism involved, could we use only white females to endorse a product?”
In 1992, with Joyner-Kersee coming off back-to-back gold medals without the endorsements to match, the Black writer Howie Evans observed, “the complexion of her skin will deny her the mega bucks she so richly deserves.” But at this time, there was also a slight breakthrough that would ultimately allow some top Black women to become household names. While Joyner-Kersee struggled to earn endorsements, her sister in-law Florence Griffith-Joyner became the first Black woman to economically benefit from her athletic success. Of course, “Flo-Jo” would have to be impeccable on and off the track to reap the windfall of her athletic success. Known for her long flowing hair, immaculate nails, and glamorous bodysuits, Flo-Jo was a brilliant embodiment of speed and style. As sports historian Lindsay Parks Pieper observed, Flo-Jo “intentionally mingled sexuality and speed.” A year after winning gold in the 1988 Seoul Olympics and shattering the world record in the 100 meters, Flo-Jo reportedly made $3 million in endorsements.
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A few Black women, like tennis’ Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, built off this success. In 2000, Venus Williams became the face of Reebok’s global brand when she signed a five-year, $45 million deal with the company. And Serena Williams eventually saw that same level of economic success. In 2019, for example, she was the only woman athlete on the Forbes highest-paid athletes list, coming in at No. 63 after having made a reported $29 million, $25 million of which came from endorsements. Today, Serena Williams is on a commercial nearly every day alongside actress Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman for a Direct TV spot.
But even the Williamses’ success highlights the endorsement gap Black women face. When Venus Williams signed her deal, Anna Kournikova had a six-year deal worth $50 million despite the fact she had never won one of tennis’ major tournaments. And Maria Sharapova consistently made more money in endorsements than Serena Williams, even though Williams dominated Sharapova on the court.
Despite the success of a few, the majority of Black women athletes won’t get their rightful share of endorsements because American companies don’t value their presence and don’t see them as marketable. “The infrastructure of this free market,” wrote sports historian Cat Ariail, “is not free of cases of race, gender, and sexuality.” American companies have always been more comfortable in promoting White women, whom, as Ariail wrote, corporations believe they can market as “the girl next door.” Historian Susan K. Cahn wrote, “The most striking feature of the historical record on black women athletes is neglect,” and she suggested that the history of this “lay deep in the traditions of Western thought, in which women of color have long been viewed as distant but definitive repositories of inferior, unfeminine qualities.” In other words, most companies refuse to believe that Black women can be the face of their business because America has refused to see Black women as everyday Americans like they do their White counterparts.
All of this being said, one of Bueckers’ Black teammates, first-year guard Azzi Fudd, presents an interesting case study in how change may be coming. Although unproven at the college ranks, the sharpshooting Fudd has signed NIL deals with major companies including the Chipotle restaurant chain and sports drink brand BioSteel, and just recently she signed with Steph Curry’s SC30 Inc. Fudd’s financial windfall could be an indication that doors are finally opening for other Black women to benefit. Alternatively, it could simply be a reminder that companies remain stuck in their ways. Along with her undeniable talent, Fudd’s proximity to whiteness at UConn, a majority White campus in the liberal Northeast, may have given her the same “girl next door” appeal as her friend Bueckers. For the past few years, the two were often seen together on social media as a dynamic duo of balling besties who would school you on the court with style and grace and then hop on social media and master the latest dance craze.
Bueckers understands that she benefits from her whiteness. During her 2021 ESPY speech, she used her platform to share the spotlight with her Black sisters, who often don’t get the same media attention. “With the light that I have now as a White woman who leads a Black-led sport and celebrated here, I want to shed a light on Black women. They don’t get the media coverage that they deserve. They’ve given so much to the sport, the community and society as a whole, and their value is undeniable.”
In the future, companies would do well to listen to Bueckers. Owusu is every bit as exciting as Bueckers on the basketball court. Boston is a budding superstar. Considering the success prominent sponsors have had recently with basketball’s Candace Parker, gymnastics’ Simone Biles, and tennis’ Naomi Osaka, getting in on the ground floor with college athletes in the new NIL era could pay large long-term dividends.
Beyond that, having a player like Boston be the face of a national brand would mean a lot to young Black girls. Sports historian Amira Rose Davis sees this as an opportunity for a Black woman to be presented as her “full self.” The media image for Boston, she suggests, is one of a trope of a Black woman always under duress. She is portrayed as the “emotional, gritty Black girl” but never given an opportunity to be a Bueckers. Making Boston the face of a national brand would finally expand a pop culture vision of American femininity that has for so long excluded most Black women. It would signal that Blackness has appeal to consumers from every background and is equally worthy of celebration.
College sports changed dramatically this year with new NCAA rules allowing athletes to profit from their names, images, and likenesses (NILs). For athlete empowerment advocates, it was a major victory—one that could prompt further reform and reorganization across the landscape of intercollegiate athletics.
How has NIL already impacted college sports, and what is on the horizon for campuses and their communities around the United States?