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How college gymnasts can finally cash in

Episode Summary

For over 100 years, college athletes couldn't make money competing in their sports. A new NCAA rule around name Image and likeness, or NIL, has changed that.

Episode Notes

For over 100 years, college athletes couldn’t make money competing in their sports. A new NCAA rule around name, image and likeness, or NIL, has changed that. The biggest winners? Gymnasts.

Today, we talk to a few current and former gymnasts at UCLA, including Olympians Jordyn Wieber and Jordan Chiles, about how this rule change has affected their lives. Read the full transcript here.

Host: Gustavo Arellano

Guests: L.A. Times college sports and NBA reporter Thuc Nhi Nguyen


More reading:


Once empowered by Title IX, female athletes are now among big winners in new NIL era


‘My medals are my armor.’ Jordan Chiles’ persistence guides her pursuit of greatness


How California paved the way for college athletes to cash in big

Episode Transcription

Gustavo Arellano: It's March Madness right now, that annual college basketball tournament where men's and women's teams compete for hoops glory. And unfortunately, my beloved UCLA Bruins did not make it into the Final Four for the men's team. Better luck next year, guys. 

It's a multimillion-dollar extravaganza, part of the multibillion-dollar industry that is college sports.

But until very recently, athletes were forced to make a choice between attempting to go pro or competing in college, and barred from making money.

AP: A new era is about to begin for some NCAA athletes. 

That all changed in 2021 when the NCAA, the group in charge of the biggest college sports programs changed their rules. Now student-athletes can ink deals while playing in college. 

AP: Starting Thursday, athletes at the highest levels of college sports will be permitted to be compensated for use of their name, image or likeness.


College football and men's basketball players get really prominent deals out of this. But nowhere has the so-called NIL rule had a bigger impact than in a sport that usually only makes national headlines every four years during the Olympics: women's gymnastics.

UCLA vs. IOWA STATE Meet: “And she’s done it again…another perfect 10 by Jordan Chiles!”

Gustavo: Athletes, like Olympic silver medalist Jordan Chiles can now go to college, compete, but also make money. That means that these gymnasts could have their Olympic dreams and their college ones too. But at what cost?


Gustavo: I'm Gustavo Arellano. You're listening to “The Times: Essential News from the L.A. Times.” Monday, March 27th, 2023. Today: How NIL rules have empowered a new generation of female athletes.


Gustavo: Here to talk to me about all this is my L.A. Times colleague, sports reporter Thuc Nhi Nguyen. Welcome to The Times.

Thuc Nhi Nguyen: Thanks for having me, Gustavo. It's a great honor to be here with you.

Gustavo: And I cannot wait to talk about sports yet again. And college sports especially. I mean, events have filled up stadiums and gyms for decades now.  College sports are such a part of the American landscape, and it brings in billions of dollars in revenues for universities. But for a long time, college athletes didn't get any official pay for everything that they did on the fields or on the courts. Why?

Thuc Nhi: You've probably heard of the term student-athlete. The NCAA is really proud of this word. A lot of college athletes are also proud of this word because it embodies the uniqueness of college sports in this country. We have athletes who are training at the highest levels, but they're also going to school. And the reason why this term essentially exists is to create this barrier between college-level amateurs and professionals. The NCAA wants to make sure this barrier stays strong, essentially so they don't have to pay the athletes as employees for the schools. 

And it's not just money that constitutes them as amateurs. I mean, they get scholarships that pay for tuition and room and board, and they're allowed to have some part-time campus jobs and internships, but they have a lot of – limited opportunities to make actual cash. And if you can imagine, as you're a college student, you're trying to go out and get dinner, you're not gonna be able to pay for food with your scholarship check. So as college athletics have become a very profitable business athletes are really getting left behind. 

So you might remember Katelyn Ohashi, who is the former UCLA gymnast.

She was called the Perfect 10 Gymnast. She was on every single TV show. She did so many media interviews after she went viral with her Michael Jackson floor routine in 2019. 

Announcer: This is it. Such a fun routine right here. She performs to Michael Jackson.

Announcer: The background says it all. Believe in yourself

Thuc Nhi: UCLA started competing in front of these sold-out crowds, both at home and away, and there were a lot of companies reaching out to Katelyn about partnering with her during kind of her 15 minutes of fame.

But she wasn't able to do any of those partnerships because she would've been ruled ineligible to compete.


Gustavo: So why did the NCAA decide to change its amateur rules and allow name, image and likeness or NIL?

Thuc: We have to go all the way back to 2014. If you remember, maybe you played this game, there was kind of a college version of Madden or 2K, if you will, where you could kind of play as your favorite college player, NCAA. But we don't have that anymore. And the reason why is O'Bannon vs. NCAA, which is a court case, that was where the lead plaintiff was Ed O’Bannon, former UCLA men's basketball player, 

Gustavo: Another Bruin.

Thuc Nhi: And he sued the NCAA on behalf of Division One football players and men's basketball players, saying that the  NCAA shouldn't be able to use their images or likenesses, for these players in this video game for commercial gain, because they didn't get any money, even though their face was in this video game.

So as a result, we don't have that video game anymore. And the court ruled that the NCAA violated antitrust laws. That was kind of the first major court case involving NIL. And then as time went on, Congress was kind of looking at these laws and saying like, wow, this is weird. This is unfair. Like they're not even allowed to sign endorsement deals. They're not allowed to benefit off of their own names, image and likenesses. So now they're allowed to do that because there were a lot of laws passed recently. Various states are different. California is one of the more kind of open NIL states.  So athletes at colleges in California are really benefiting from some of these new opportunities.

Gustavo: Yeah, like all of a sudden being able to make money in a way you were told most of your career you wouldn’t be able to. 

Thuc Nhi: I, if you're allowed to suddenly make a paycheck, I would be very happy. Uh, especially when you're an 18-year-old college student. Any type of  benefit in terms of just maybe a few hundred dollars, you sign an autograph, something like that.


Gustavo: So what exactly does name, image, and likeness entail then? Is it just basically branding sponsorships on an individual basis?

Thuc Nhi: At the very base level, yes.

You're allowed to use your name, image and likeness for your own commercial gain. Anytime an athlete is in a commercial, like if Tom Brady is selling a sports drink, he's using his name, image, and likeness, for example. 

Tom Brady: Protein is a big part of my day. I break my body down a lot. I want to make sure it has the protein it needs to recover so, I’ve got a couple of flavors here…

Thuc Nhi: So now a lot of athletes, especially in college, who – they're very prominent on social media and that's where a lot of micromarketing is happening – they can do a paid post on Instagram, with a grocery store, with an  apparel company. They're allowed to use their name and image on a shirt. They're allowed to kind of expand their charitable efforts, through NIL. So it really does have very wide-reaching effects. 

Gustavo: What has this policy change meant for women in sports particularly?

Thuc Nhi: It's been huge for women in sports. I think a lot of people when they think about NIL, they think about college football and men's basketball because we consider those the big money-making sports; they’re the ones that we mostly see on TV. But for women it's a big change because they don't have as many opportunities to go pro afterwards. For female college athletes, this is really the time where they're the most – they have the most exposure, they have the most earning potential, and prior to these rules, they could never capitalize on it. So this is a huge opportunity for women in sports, especially at the college level.

So gymnastics is a really interesting lens to look at NIL through, because these athletes, especially when you're talking about female athletes, they're peaking when they're really young, 16, 17, 18 years old. And this is the time when these athletes, especially the women, have the most earning potential that they'll ever have in relation to their sports in their life. And there's no pro gymnastics league that they'll be going into when they're 22 or 23. So the window they have to make money is very small and NIL is really helping them maximize it.

Gustavo: Coming up after the break, the college experience for gymnasts before and after NIL rule changes. 

Gustavo: Thuc Nhi, you were saying that gymnastics is a really interesting way to look at the changes NIL – name, image and likeness – has brought to college sports and women's sports in particular. So who did you speak to to better understand that change?

Thuc Nhi: So we talked to Jordyn Wieber, who’s a former Team USA Olympian, and now she's the head coach at the University of Arkansas. 

Jordyn Wieber: I am a 2012 Olympic gold medalist in gymnastics.

Thuc Nhi: So Jordan grew up like a lot of young gymnasts dreaming about two things.

Jordyn: One was to be an Olympian and the other one was to be a college gymnast. And I think it, there was something about college gymnastics that I really loved. And you go to the meets and it's just different than elite gymnastics. It's high energy. It's, you know, the athletes are so enthusiastic – it’s fun. And so for me it was always those two things, the Olympics and college gymnastics. 

Thuc Nhi: When she was competing in the Olympics, she didn't have NIL opportunity. So she had to choose whether she was going to accept any brand deals or she would maintain her college eligibility

It was a really, really tough decision to have to make at 16 years old. 

 So I remember sitting at a restaurant with my parents and my mom had these sheets of paper and we were laying out pros and cons of each option.

Thuc Nhi: So Jordan made the decision to go pro before the 2012 Olympic Games.

Gustavo: And what did that mean then for Jordan's second dream, to compete for UCLA?

Thuc Nhi: So she wasn't allowed to compete for UCLA. She lost all of her college eligibility, and she instead decided to be a team manager at UCLA, where she went to school as a student. 

Jordyn: You know, it didn't really hit me until we got to the first meet and I was a team manager, so my job was to move the mats, chalk the bars, like do all the other things the team needed. But when the competition started I was like, dang, you know, I really wish I got to do that and, and go out there and perform because I knew I would've been really good at it.

Gustavo: How have the prospects for elite gymnasts who wanted to compete in college changed in the years since?

Thuc Nhi: So I went out to Westwood with producer Helen Li, and we spoke to a couple of gymnasts currently competing at UCLA.

Thuc Nhi: Jordan Chiles, Olympic silver medalist in Tokyo

Helen Li: Have you done a podcast before? 

Jordan Chiles: Yeah. Too many, too many


Thuc Nhi: And Emma Malabuyo, who was an Olympic alternate in Tokyo.

Emma Malabuyo: Mm-hmm, yeah, back in 2021. Very fun.

Thuc Nhi: And they're kind of the first generation of Olympians who get to really realize these benefits of being both NIL earners and college stars. And we also talked to Margzetta Frazier, who has kind of lived a whole life of college. She was pre-NIL and now during NIL.

Margzetta: I felt like because of those situations, the NIL thing should have like kick-started a little earlier cause that felt unfair. At that point, it feels like exploitation.

Thuc Nhi: So once the NIL rules went final, I think a lot of people were trying to figure out how they would capitalize, how they would make money. And that meant a lot of these athletes needed to find representation. They needed to find agents, they needed to find lawyers to help them read these contracts.

Margzetta: I felt like I was in the draft. I had all these agencies calling me, texting me, emailing me. 

Emma: So I was really talking to my parents. I'm like, should I put a business email up on my Instagram? Should I start with that? And so I started, um, with that business email and actually, a lot more deals came through that way.

Jordan Chiles: So my email is connected to my agent's email, so whatever somebody emails them, they will just get sent to my agency and then they'll send it over to me and I'll look over it. I'll see what the deliverables are and everything like that, and then whether or not I feel like it's good for who I am or, and my brand, then I'll say yes or no.

Thuc Nhi: They also have some third-party apps. One of them that Jordan Chiles the UCLA gymnast mentions was INFLCR, and they kind of create this way for brands to get in contact with athletes in a lot of athletic departments.

Jordan: That will chat, like ask us, Hey, we have this NIL deal. Like for one post and two stories, we'll give you 3.5K.

Thuc Nhi: A lot of athletic departments will kind of have a sub department to help some of their athletes get in contact with different brands for NIL opportunities,

Gustavo: What do the deals actually look like? Like what do they have to do?

Thuc Nhi: Well, it ranges. Some deals for people who are kind of just starting out are just, maybe you get a free product, you get a free case of water, you get a free shirt, in exchange for posting on social media, hey, I love this water. Or, Hey, I love this shirt. 

Emma: Sprouts reached out and they have like a sushi company, um, within the store and they would love you to promote it. And I'm like, Great. So I get paid and I get my favorite food. So I thought that was a really cool deal. 

Thuc Nhi: If you are a little bit more of a commodity, especially someone like Jordan Chiles who is an Olympian, a world champion, she can demand a little bit more in terms of money, in terms of salary, 

Jordan:  I started at like a couple grand and it went to over five, and then it gradually just went to 10, and so it just got higher as I went. 

Thuc Nhi: Each brand has, you know, you need to post X number of social media posts

Jordan: I have deliverables that I have to do each month. So it's like one Carousel post with, like, three posts, three pictures in it, three story frame, and then I have to do like a TikTok and a reel. So that's what I have to do in that month. And it's for almost each month. And then obviously they kind of pay out with the deliverables that I do.

Gustavo: So besides money, are there any other perks for gymnasts now in the NIL era?

Thuc Nhi: Yeah, definitely. I think it's a really interesting opportunity for some of these gymnasts to almost start their post gymnastics lives early. Margzetta Frazier, who is a very talented singer, prior to NIL rules, couldn't release a song under her name because then that would've been kind of unfair if she was using her name as an NCAA athlete to promote her music. So now she's allowed to do that. So it really does have very wide-reaching effects.. 

Margzetta: There's a song called, with my friend Heaven, “Heaven Shamba,” and just search Margzetta on Apple Music or Spotify, And it goes: taking too much time. I wanna get there right now. You always feel the need to slow it down. Too low. 


Thuc Nhi: If she wants to break into the music industry after her gymnastics career is over, because you can't do gymnastics for your whole life, she can start doing that now. 

Margzetta: I'm grateful that I get to do that so I can pay for my rent. And, you know, get birthday gifts for my siblings and save up for an apartment. 

Thuc Nhi: And so it's kind of starting to build her business acumen right now. 

You can start designing leotards, which is something that a lot of gymnasts do, in partnership with some of the companies that they are familiar with. A lot of them can sponsor camps, start charity campaigns and start giving back now in their college careers in ways that they couldn't do before.

Gustavo: I mean it’s pretty cool because you’re basically making money in your career. Like, you have a revenue stream at a young age in a way that most of your fellow college students aren’t doing.

Thuc Nhi: Yeah, exactly. And that was actually one of the big talking points about NIL earlier is because if you are a student, let's say you're in a band: if someone comes up to you and says, Hey, I would love for you to play on my song or, uh, release a song with me on social media.

You're allowed to do that, and you're allowed to make money as the open market allows you to do, you know, however much, whether it's a hundred, a thousand, you're allowed to make that. But prior to NIL rules, you can never do that as a college athlete. You have to turn down those opportunities.

So now it just kind of evens the playing field and it allows for these athletes to benefit the same way as their fellow students on campus are.

Gustavo: Coming up after the break: How the spike in exposure thanks to NIL deals is revealing new challenges for college gymnasts. 

Gustavo: So Thuc Nhi, with these fundamental changes happening in NCAA sports, are there any down sides that you found to this NIL world?

Thuc Nhi: I mean, there's always a down side to everything, right? Especially when the internet is involved. So I mean, these women are getting huge exposure. They have millions of Instagram followers, millions of TikTok followers. And with that comes a lot of internet trolls, as you can imagine. We talked to Jordan Chiles about some of her decisions that she made in terms of accepting a partnership to release a COVID vaccine PSA, and she got a lot of blowback on that.

Jordan: For instance, I had the COVID vaccine situation where I had to turn my comments off because a bunch of people were attacking me for something that I was just like, telling you, you can do whatever you wanna do with your body. There was a lot of factors into it, but obviously the down side was the fact that people don't understand that. They don't understand why we're doing the things, they only see the, oh, this is Jordan Chiles, she's an Olympian this, that and the other, and she's posting about COVID. Like, no, that's not why I did it. I was telling you guys to protect yourselves in a way if you want to or you don't want to.

Thuc Nhi: It's also not easy being an influencer. It's actually a lot of work, if you can believe it or not – you have to shoot a lot of videos 

Margzetta: I walk around with my little, I call it my influencer kit, and it's just a duffel bag with the tripod in there and a light and a little Bluetooth remote so I can take pictures of myself.

Thuc Nhi: Margzetta talked about how difficult it was to do all of the requirements that these brands are asking her to – they're asking to her to reshoot the video, edit it differently, all these different takes.

Margzetta: So if a brand wants to do a photo shoot, they need to hire models, they need to have transportation – they should have transportation – stylists on hand, food ready, da da da da da. I'm doing all of that by myself. So yeah, the price seems appropriate.

Thuc Nhi: And it really does eat into your time, especially for these athletes who also have full workloads and practice a lot.

Margzetta: And it's pretty relaxing the first time. But when you have to keep doing it, that's just when it's a lot to handle.

Thuc Nhi: One of the big things, especially in women's gymnastics, is that these athletes are so prominent, it's almost become this level of overexposure that can become unsafe.

Boys: Can you take a picture, can you hold my phone? Can you hold? Can you, our phone please. Can you sign this? Take it. 

Thuc Nhi: One of the most prominent examples is LSU is Olivia Dunne, and she's one of the biggest NIL earners in the whole country. and that includes male athletes and she can do a paid post on Instagram.

Livvy Dunne from Instagram Reels: Hey guys, come along as I get ready for practice today. I found the perfect pic. It's this orange Vuori set and it is so cute on and so flattering. Just look at it. I'm obsessed.

Thuc Nhi: And she's easily made a million dollars from NIL in her career. 

And one of the big things that happened at LSU gymnastics meets this year where fans started showing up in these huge numbers and harassing her and other gymnasts.

The school had to up security. She had concerns about going to classes in person, so she had to take Zoom classes again. We spoke to Jordyn Wieber, who's a head coach in the same conference as LSU, and she talked to us about the precautions they took when Olivia Dunne and LSU came to compete at Arkansas.

Jordyn: We saw that video and we made sure to reach out and figure out what do we need to do to make it a safe environment for not just Livvy, but all of the athletes. I think that's key. I think that's important. as we're hosting teams and we're creating these spaces and these competitions for athletes. It is our job as athletic departments and coaches to make sure it is safe.

Gustavo: Finally Thuc Nhi, this name, image, likeness stuff. It's changed the nature of college sports, but what about high school sports or even younger? I mean, you have kids who aren't even teens making millions off unboxing videos nowadays. I could easily imagine, say, high school quarterbacks and gymnasts saying I should be able to make money too.

Thuc Nhi: Yeah, definitely. I mean, if college NIL rules vary state by state, then high school NIL rules vary even more state by state. So California is one of the few states that does allow high school athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness. And one of the things that we're actually seeing is some athletes who go to high school in states that don't have NIL rules will move to California and go to high school here or they will leave high school early and enroll early in college at their choice college to start earning NIL earlier. So it's really looking like the wild West out here. 

We don't know what's gonna happen, but we just kind of see where the road takes us all.

Gustavo: Thank you so much for this conversation.

Thuc: Thanks for having me.

Gustavo: And that's it for this episode of “The Times: Essential News from the L.A. Times.” Helen Li and Kasia Broussalian were jefas on this episode. Great job, jefas! It was edited by Jazmin Aguilera and Heba Elorbany, and Mario Diaz mixed and mastered it.

Our show's produced by Denise Guerra, Kasia Broussalian, David Toledo and Ashlea Brown. Our editorial assistants are Robert Reyes and Nicolas Perez. Our fellow is Helen Li. Our engineers are Mario Diaz, Mark Nieto and Mike Heflin. Our executive producers are Shani Hilton, Jazmin Aguilera and Heba Elorbany, and our theme music is by Andrew Eapen. 

I’m Gustavo Arellano. We'll be back Wednesday with all the news and desmadre. Gracias.