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Christian Athletes Know How to Build Platforms for Jesus. Can They Brand Themselves?

NIL deals in college athletics present new challenges—and opportunities—for colleges and students.
Christian Athletes Know How to Build Platforms for Jesus. Can They Brand Themselves?
Image: Steph Chambers / Getty Images
UConn star Paige Bueckers, an outspoken Christian, has some of the biggest NIL deals in women's college basketball.

When Deverin Muff played Division I college basketball at Eastern Kentucky University, student athletes weren’t allowed to earn money off their name, image, and likeness (NIL)—their personal brand.

Now he’s a professor at the university, and some of the players in his classes have agents. An NCAA policy change in 2021—heralded by Muff and other Christian athletes as a matter of fairness—allows college athletes to earn money beyond financial aid or scholarships.

“This is a matter of justice, frankly. … It righted a historic wrong,” said Pepperdine University sports administration professor Alicia Jessop. College sports, especially football and basketball, draw in billions in revenue.

Christians in college athletics have welcomed the change to allow NIL deals, according to interviews with CT. But they are also navigating an unknown landscape and finding challenges along the way. The NCAA itself is still reeling from the resulting shifts in the economics of college sports, passing additional NIL rules just last week.

Jessop was recently teaching a class on NIL deals at Pepperdine, where she is also the faculty representative to the NCAA. One student decided to put the class into practice immediately and reached out to a sunglasses brand to pitch a deal. In a short time, the student had a free pair of sunglasses delivered.

“It’s a teaching tool,” said Jessop. “They think they’re learning about NIL so they’re focused, but they’re getting a whole business curriculum put in front of them.”

Under the new NCAA rules passed last week, schools can be more directly involved in NIL deals and they can offer a support system that helps educate students through the process.

“It’s an opportunity for Christian athletes in college to develop maturity and wisdom to navigate the world, which is what college sports should be about,” said sports historian Paul Putz, assistant director of the Faith & Sports Institute at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary. “It’s the Wild West a little bit, but there’s opportunities as well.”

Christian athletes might be well prepared for the NIL market, said Putz, because they’ve already been taught to think highly of their platform as a way of “promoting” Jesus.

He noted that national sports ministries like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and Athletes in Action have marketing and sales roots; Don McClanen founded FCA in 1954 with the idea that athletes could use their name, image, and likeness to endorse Jesus instead of shaving cream or cigarettes.

Christian colleges have consulted with NIL lawyers, according to interviews with CT, and have developed NIL-specific policies to put boundaries on what brands students can partner with.

For example, Houghton University’s NIL policy prohibits “activities that endorse businesses or brands that are engaged in activities inconsistent with the University’s mission.” Most Christian schools have policies similar to secular schools, which also don’t want students doing promotional deals with gambling companies, for example.

One question mark in this new NIL landscape are collectives. Some nonprofit and for-profit NIL collectives have formed around school programs that are often backed by alumni to find NIL opportunities for players.

The NCAA has tried without success to restrict these collectives from being a part of the recruitment process, in an effort to avoid “pay-to-play” incentives that might simply send the best college athletes to the wealthiest schools. The IRS also issued a memo last year saying that these nonprofit collectives might not be tax-exempt, which could dampen alumni donor backing of these groups.

Is NIL making college sports transactional?

Some Christians have worried about college sports becoming more and more transactional. Historically, Christians have associated amateurism in college sports with moral formation, according to Putz. Playing non-professionally in an educational setting is considered character forming.

But money has always been a part of the equation—it just wasn’t going to athletes. Coaches were already drawing high salaries by the 1920s, Putz said. He doesn’t see any concern about transactional deals with coaches. (One recent example: Public records showed The Ohio State University signed a new offensive coordinator for $2 million.)

“If [NIL] is transactional, we’re learning that from the grown-ups in those spaces, from the people who are setting the pace and expectations,” Putz said.

Harold “Red” Grange, considered one of the college football greats, announced he would turn professional shortly after his college team won the state championship in 1925. Critics, which Putz said included Christians, were angry that he would stoop to commercialism.

But Putz said that when James Naismith, the Christian who invented basketball, was asked about Grange, he said any college athletes going to play professionally were simply doing what coaches had already done.

“He saw early on the way college sports were already commercialized,” Putz said.

Small potatoes at smaller schools

Most Christian college students aren’t going to see big NIL deals. According to Jessop, Pepperdine students tend to get in-kind deals on things like sunglasses.

One estimate in 2021 put Division III athletes’ average NIL compensation at $47 a year. That has likely increased as students become more entrepreneurial, but the bulk of NIL money goes to football programs at the Power Five schools, which have drawn over $595 million in NIL funding in the past three years according to Opendorse.

Most Christian college sports programs are Division II, Division III, or part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, a conference for smaller colleges. The combined NIL football program earnings for all schools across those programs was estimated at around a half-million dollars.

Baylor, one of the only Christian schools in the Power Five conferences, reports that more than half of its student athletes have NIL deals. Smaller schools might not have the resources to hire agencies to help students with deals, as some larger Christian colleges have done.

Tim Schoonveld, the athletic director at Hope College, a NCAA Division III school, has 550 student athletes, and he estimates 15 of them have some kind of NIL deal. But they aren’t Nike ads.

“Maybe the local restaurant will give you a meal a week if you tweet about them,” he said. “That’s the limited stuff we get.”

That’s by design. Division III athletes, like those at Hope, don’t receive athletic scholarships; the benefit is that they have more time to focus on school and don’t lose their financial aid package if they step off the team.

But Schoonveld is happy for student athletes to earn income off their name and image. He thinks schools can help students navigate the ethics of deals; he wants them to balance making deals with being generous as people—engaging with younger fans without expecting compensation, for example.

After the NCAA began allowing NIL deals, Peyton Mansell, then a quarterback at Abilene Christian University, reached out to a local farm and told them he liked their milk, according to the school’s student newspaper The Optimist. Mansell and the farm worked out a partnership, and that experience led him to start his own beef jerky business in 2022, which has taken off.

“Now, being able to return that favor by being on the other side, and being able to say, ‘Hey, I want to sponsor you,’ is really nice,” he told The Optimist. “Especially at a school like ACU, which doesn’t have the national reach like other universities.”

UConn basketball star Paige Bueckers, an outspoken Christian, has a self-imposed requirement that any NIL deal includes a charity or community engagement opportunity. Bueckers was the first college athlete to sign a deal with Gatorade, and Jessop said that women athletes are the “early winners” with NIL because they can establish their own marketing deals when “historically their athletic departments have not marketed them.”

Is NIL spurring transfers?

Another NCAA rule change in recent years that plays into NIL allows student athletes to transfer schools without the penalty of sitting out a season or more. That means bigger schools with more incentives can often recruit top players at any point. Muff, the former college basketball player turned professor, has conversations every week with students who might be wrestling with transferring, often to bigger schools with the possibility of better compensation.

He brings up why it might be good to stay even without the greater NIL incentives, and asks them to think about life outside of sports.

“Because I’m a former student athlete, teaching at the school I played at, the conversations can get deeper,” he said. “That’s my hope for anybody who does come talk to me—that they consider the community they’re leaving.”

Muff did not transfer in part because he became a Christian through the ministry Campus Outreach his sophomore year.

“Having that community that was already built in here, not only with other Christians at school but the church community, that helped a lot,” he said. “People are well within their right to transfer whenever they want to, but instead of being a hired gun, you have the opportunity to be in a family.”

He added: “If they truly believe somewhere else is going to be better for them, go for it. But consider all your options before leaving.”

Jessop said for top athletes, “money talks”—and she thinks the pay-to-play collectives are more responsible for driving transfers than NIL as a concept. But she still thinks students will seek out Christian universities for their values.

And that is where Christians have a unique contribution, Putz said.

“If we’re an athletic program that wants to be a Christian athletic program, how do we connect what’s happening in NIL within a broader structure of a Christian flourishing for student athletes?” said Putz. “NIL presents a laboratory space for figuring out those questions.”

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