TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — McKenzie Milton and five Florida State teammates walked into Miller’s Ale House, sat at a long table, ordered some food and eagerly greeted the first fan to come up to them during their first paid event of the name, image and likeness era.
During the hour-and-a-half long session, they signed helmets and posed for photos, including with a woman who wore a Florida Gators face mask, sparking good-natured teasing from the players.
Several UCF fans, giddy with excitement, walked up specifically to see Milton, who transferred to Florida State in January after a five-year career with the Knights. One confided she cried when he transferred. Another asked if she could get a hug and made sure to get multiple photos. One young football player, wearing his Seminoles gear, asked the players to sign his cleats.
Nothing about the event suggested an impending “Wild, Wild West,” as some coaches and administrators have described this new NIL era in collegiate athletics. With little-to-no guidance from the NCAA about how to handle name, image and likeness, and varying legislation in states across the country subject to interpretation on each campus that went into effect starting July 1, the narrative focused more on impending doom and worry around how exactly it would all play out.
If anything, the scene on a quiet Thursday night inside a popular sports bar and restaurant within a college-obsessed city suggests the hubbub leading into the day had more to do with all the unknowns that come with unprecedented change, and less to do with what reality in an NIL world would look like — players smiling, laughing, taking pictures and signing autographs.
Throughout the country, players across all sports joined NIL platforms, announced endorsement deals, set up fundraising pages, and booked events. But they also carried on with their offseason conditioning, meetings and team activities, and collegiate athletics carried on without falling apart.
“It’s an exciting time in college sports,” Milton told ESPN. “I know there might be some hesitancy going on in some people’s minds, but in the long run, it’s going to be a good thing.”
While it will take more than just a few days living in an NIL world to bring us closer to answering some of the bigger questions about the marketplace for collegiate athletes, and solving many gray areas in state legislation and NCAA guidelines, the Florida State players at Thursday’s event thought a lot about whether this day would ever come. Cam McDonald pointed out Thursday felt like a national holiday, because athletes could finally celebrate what had been years in the making.
“I’ve been focused on personal branding since high school,” McDonald, a Florida State tight end, said. “I didn’t know I was going to be able to profit off it during college, but being able to be in position to broadcast the fruits of my labor, and just finally get my personal logo out there, it means the world to me.”
We have not heard enough from the players about what NIL means to them, because they have been at the mercy of administrators, the NCAA and Congress while they tried to figure out what to do. In the vacuum of player voices, naysayers have chimed in, predicting teams would fracture because some players in a locker room might make more than others; players would lose focus on their sports while working on marketing and branding; they would not know how to navigate finances and taxes with newfound income; and they did not deserve the opportunity because they already were getting paid with scholarships.
“It’s not all about the money,” Florida State offensive lineman Devontay Love-Taylor said. “At the end of the day, our main goal is to win football games. When it comes for fall camp, I’m not going to do any NIL stuff. I’m focused on that right now while it’s live, but once football comes, then I’m 100% football.”
McDonald pushed back against those who have made negative comments about NIL, saying, “The people who are saying those things about us are people who are generally putting the athletes in a box. They’re saying all they can really do is play football. I’m not going to say I take offense to that because I just let it brush off my shoulder. [To the] people who do say things like that, I just say, ‘Do you really know us as individuals? Do you know that we’re capable of doing more than just football?’ With NIL, we get an opportunity to broadcast that, so I just take those messages with a grain of salt because those people don’t really know what they’re talking about, anyway.”
Indeed, countless players with talents outside collegiate sports — from musicians to artists to entrepreneurs to clothing designers — have been unable to capitalize on those talents, unlike the general student population on their campuses. That is why the change is so significant. To some, it may just be about making as much money as possible in college. But to others, it’s simply the opportunity to make that money, because the chance never previously existed.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for people who have other passions, to show that we’re more than football players,” Love-Taylor said. “If you have a passion for gaming, you can reach out and do something involving gaming. Whether it’s clothing, food, you can just branch out and do other stuff besides being a football player.”
There are countless examples of players in the recent past who have either been unable to monetize their outside business interests, or have been declared ineligible for doing so. During a quiet moment leading up to Thursday, Milton reflected on the case of his former teammate, UCF kicker Donald De La Haye.
In 2017, De La Haye was ruled ineligible because he made money off popular YouTube videos that showed his experiences as a student-athlete at UCF, and the ensuing public outcry was one of the defining moments that led to today. Watching De La Haye clearly had an impact on Milton, who became one of the more outspoken advocates for state NIL legislation in Florida. It had an impact on his former UCF teammates, too. During a news conference in Orlando on Thursday, UCF defensive lineman Kalia Davis said he watched the De La Haye YouTube channel as a recruit. They ended up with their lockers next to each other.
On Thursday, Davis began to monetize his Twitch streaming account because that is now within the rules. Davis said football remains his top priority, but in his off time he is gaming, so he might as well make money doing it. Davis called De La Haye a “big inspiration.” De La Haye still has his YouTube channel Deestroying, with 3.4 million followers, and posted a video on July 1 celebrating the decision that starts off with three simple words: “We did it!” That video has over 125,000 views.
“He really crawled so we could walk, so shout out to him,” Davis said. “We’re going to take the torch from him.”