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Pitt Athletic Director Heather Lyke said Thursday that her department has been preparing for athletes to capitalize on their name, image and likeness for over a year now and has had an NIL task force assembled since January.
But with different states enacting different rules — the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed a bill last week that allows athletes to capitalize on NIL — it appears as though uncertainty and confusion is common among the Pitt Athletics staff and the nation as a whole about the future of collegiate athletics.
The NCAA acquiesced to the demands of both former and current athletes, providing tentative rules on NIL. While different states have passed different bills regarding NIL, there are two rules that remain consistent across all 50 states — universities will not be paying players to play at their school, nor can NIL benefits be used as a means of recruiting, according to Lyke.
Pitt Athletics released a statement on Wednesday detailing a new program, Forged Here, to guide athletes in their NIL endeavors.
“This is not about recruiting inducement,” Lyke said. “We can’t recruit student athletes with the idea of ‘Hey, come to Pitt because we can set you up with these name, image and likeness opportunities.”
After being asked about the policing and enforcement of NIL promotion in recruiting, Lyke backtracked slightly, saying NIL benefits will be used “indirectly” as a means of recruiting.
“There’s an indirect recruiting piece to it,” Lyke said. “Certainly schools are going to promote the fact that ‘We have X number of followers’ or ‘We can grow your followers with an outside company’… There’s no question there will be that type of indirect recruiting spiel.”
Forged Here’s goal is to provide Pitt athletes with the tools and knowledge necessary to make the most of their new opportunity to capitalize on their NIL. The program will center around “brand identity, business education, financial literacy, wealth management, entrepreneurship and social media proficiency,” according to Pitt’s statement. One of the biggest goals for the department as a whole is to help educate the athletes on the new laws as well as assist them with making the most of their opportunities.
“We’re really excited about the educational component of [Forged Here],” Lyke said. “Our goal is to help our student-athletes understand what they can do and how to help them navigate this space, educate them about it… We’re learning it as we go.”
Despite Lyke stating there has been a plan regarding NIL changes in place for some time now, it doesn’t seem like every staff member — not even Jeff Capel, head coach of the men’s basketball team — was fully prepared for what was coming on July 1.
“I didn’t talk to [my staff or players] at all about [NIL],” Capel said. “For me there was no need for me to talk to them about something that I didn’t understand… I want to have knowledge about it and speak to my team in an educated manner and we’ll do that today… I have a little bit of a better understanding, I still don’t completely understand it all yet.”
Brand-building is something the Forged Here program will focus upon, but according to Capel, a collegiate athlete’s brand doesn’t start online, but rather with their dedication to their sport.
“I don’t know how many people really have a brand,” Capel said. “How many [athletes] truly do have a brand? The ones that do have a brand, they’re really really damn good… one the things I’ll say to the guys is that look ‘your brand is still made in between the lines’… don’t let the pursuit of just money and capitalizing on that get in the way of education and becoming really good at what you do.”
Although players can now be paid for endorsements and branding, the University itself will not pay athletes and according to Lyke, amateurism in college sports is still very prevalent.
“I don’t see this as loss of amateurism,” Lyke said. “We are not paying them. I think if we were paying them it would be very different. This is just treating them like any other college student in the country.”
The Athletic Department will partner with various on-campus organizations and programs — such as the Cathy and John Pelusi Family Life Skills Program, Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Center for Branding at the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business — as well as an outside agency specializing in NIL issues, INFLCR. Evan Facher, vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship, is confident that the partnership will be greatly beneficial to both the athletes and the University.
“The Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship is excited to be collaborating with the Department of Athletics and the Katz Business School on this forward-thinking effort,” Facher said. “By bringing together such a unique collection of experts in their various fields to Forged Here, Pitt is leveraging its world-class capabilities to create an impactful opportunity for our student athletes. We are looking forward to contributing our capabilities and forging a championship quality program.”
Pitt will also further its relationship with INFLCR to help the University and athletes traverse the legal issues that will come in tandem with the new law. The group will aid athletes in growing their brand, educate them about NIL legislation and ensure each athlete is operating within the law. More than 850 universities and 30,000 athletes use INFLCR to help guide them through NIL laws and brand-building, according to a statement from Pitt Athletics.
The athletic department held a meeting with the football team on Wednesday, according to Lyke, to begin their Forged Here education. Despite the NIL legislation only formally being adopted in the last 24 hours, players already took to Twitter and Instagram shortly after news broke to begin their hunt for endorsements, posting messages and opening their inboxes to businesses and companies for partnerships.
The athletic department will meet with the rest of the teams over the course of the next two days, according to Lyke.