Where does all the money go in college football? It filters down to coaches like Alabama’s Nick Saban, who makes $7 million a year. It goes to assistant coaches, an increasing number of whom clear more than $1 million per season. And donations from boosters abet the construction of gridiron palaces like the University of Oregon’s “football performance center,” a building that cost roughly $138 million.
The money has to go somewhere if, as mandated by NCAA rules, it can’t go to the players themselves. The latest landing spot? The bank account of a player’s girlfriend.
On Wednesday, the Big Lead’s Ty Duffy published an item on Breana Dodd, a student at the University of Tennessee who recently posted an ad for Jolly Rancher on her Instagram account.
Earlier this year, Dodd—who is dating Tennessee wide receiver Josh Smith—was crowned the “hottest college football girlfriend of the season” by Barstool Sports. Though there’s no trophy or cash prize associated with this title, the honoree is entitled to unlimited free evaluations of her attractiveness by anonymous Barstool commenters. Dodd, though, has been able to capitalize on her fame, earning a position as a social media candy endorser.
A representative from the Hershey Company confirmed for me that Dodd’s Instagram post, which went out to her 23,000 followers on Wednesday afternoon, is part of an ad campaign. Hershey’s Jolly Rancher brand “partnered with 50-plus collegiate influencers” for a campaign called #FinalsSuck. Jolly Rancher found Dodd and all those other “influencers” via a firm called Influential, which uses IBM’s Watson to match Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook users with companies that are seeking “organic brand messaging.” When asked whether Dodd was chosen as an “influencer” due to her relationship with a college football player, a spokesman for Influential said her “relationship with a student-athlete was not a factor.” According to the Hershey rep, Dodd “aligns with the brand’s passion points, attends one of the colleges, Tennessee, where the brand is activating and had a strong social following.”
So, what have we learned? First, the phrase organic brand messaging makes me want to dive to the bottom of the ocean and never come up again. Second, though Influential claims it didn’t choose Dodd as an “influencer” because she’s a college football player’s girlfriend, she became an Instagram demi-celebrity thanks in large part to her status as the “hottest college football girlfriend of the season.” Third, you can hardly blame Breana Dodd for grabbing her piece of the organic brand activation passion point pie. This is the free market at work. Go, market, go.
Back to the sad, candy-less hellscape of NCAA athletics: If Dodd’s boyfriend Josh Smith posted an Instagram photo sponsored by a sweets purveyor, he’d lose his athletic eligibility. According to NCAA rules, “an individual shall not be eligible for participation in intercollegiate athletics if the individual … [a]ccepts any remuneration for or permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind.”
The NCAA has softened a little over the years. Players get some money now, in the form of “cost of attendance” payments. Those payouts, which account for expenses not covered by athletic scholarships, amount to anywhere between $1,000 and $6,000 per player at Football Bowl Subdivision schools. The highest-paid player in college football, then, brings in 1/100th of the Alabama strength coach’s annual salary. At least, that’s what the highest-paid player makes above the table—the NCAA’s not going to chip in to pay Laremy Tunsil’s mom’s light bill. (That’s the athletic department’s job.)
The market value of Leonard Fournette and Deshaun Watson is of course much higher—maybe even Alabama strength coach high. Last month, Big East commissioner Val Ackerman told Sports Illustrated that the NCAA was considering a rule change that would make it OK for college athletes to broker endorsement deals. That would be fair and just, which means there’s no way the NCAA will allow it to happen. In the meantime, the money will keep flowing into the hands of people adjacent to the workers themselves.
Josh Smith isn’t Leonard Fournette, but he has almost 20,000 followers on Instagram. That should be good for a couple of Jolly Ranchers, maybe even a non-fun-size Snickers bar. But that’s not the world Smith is living in, so here’s some free advice for the wide receiver: If your girlfriend hands you a piece of candy, do not unwrap it, and definitely do not eat it. Throw it in the garbage, run away, and alert the nearest compliance officer as soon as possible. The rules must be followed. The sanctity of amateurism must be preserved.