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editor's pick

NIL deals a double-edged sword for Penn State wrestling and all of NCAA

Penn State Big Ten Wrestling Championship (Bravo-Young)

Penn State’s Roman Bravo-Young wrestles Purdue’s Jacob Rundell in the 133-pound at the Big Ten Wrestling Championship on Saturday, March 6, 2021 at the Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, Pa. Bravo-Young won by 9-3 decision.

For years, collegiate athletes have been yearning for a change in the NCAA’s policy for making money. On July 1, the entire landscape of college sports changed.

The NCAA adopted a name, image and likeness policy that allowed college athletes to profit off their personal brands.

The debate on whether to pay college athletes had been going on for years since the O’Bannon v. NCAA lawsuit decided an athlete’s name shouldn’t be used without compensation.

Since the July 1 policy change, athletes across all sports have been taking advantage of the opportunity.

Penn State’s 133-pound national champion Roman Bravo-Young was one of the first to capitalize on the new opportunity, signing an NIL deal with Barstool Sports just two days after athletes were eligible to sign the deals.

Aaron Brooks and Carter Starocci, two more of the Nittany Lions’ national champions, have also signed NIL deals or have them “in the works.”

The presence of NIL deals allows athletes to market themselves to potential sponsors as well as showcase their skills.

“It’s not necessarily whether they’re winning or losing that’s going to be the big draw,” Cael Sanderson said. “It’s about how you compete, what you represent, those kinds of things.”

With NIL deals becoming an integral part of the athletic landscape, there is a whole different dimension added to the college sports world.

However, just like professionals negotiating long-term contracts, wrestlers need to keep their best interests in mind.

Just because the money is calling their name, knowing their self-worth is key in navigating the vast universe of sponsorships.

“I don't want to sign any deal where I know my worth is higher or where I know a month from now I'll be worth a little more,” Brooks said. “I'm just patient on that, and I just want to reach my goals.”

“I have a few deals right now, it's nothing crazy because I want to make sure it's the right deal for me,” Starocci said. “I see myself as an Olympic champ already, so I want to make sure I'm getting what I’m supposed to be getting.”


At a big-time wrestling school like Penn State, which has won eight team national championships in the 2010s, the spotlight on its wrestlers may be brighter than the spotlight of wrestlers at a smaller school.

Even Sanderson acknowledged that Penn State is a place where wrestlers can be afforded with NIL opportunities, more so than other schools, due to the program being “unique.”

Although the prestige of Penn State may help get a wrestler’s name out there, winning speaks louder than anything else, so the traditional values of hard work and grit are still prevalent in the wrestling community.

One sentiment that Brooks, Bravo-Young, Starocci and Sanderson all echoed was focusing on hard work and “being the best version” of themselves.

“I feel like it has a lot of power,” Starocci said. “It's not just our athletes, it's not just our coaches, it's the whole board of Penn State and Penn State wrestling.”

Of course, with all the good that comes with athletes benefiting from their name, image and likeness, there’s a downside with unforeseen repercussions.

“I think the unintended, but obviously clear, consequences would be involved in the recruiting aspect, where it's not supposed to be a part of,” Sanderson said.

On top of that, the involvement of sponsors in a young athlete’s career can add “weird pressures,” Sanderson said, pressures that may not be there if NIL deals were still outlawed.

However, NIL deals are still new, as the policy change took place just over four months ago, and the full, long-term effects of these deals are still yet to be seen.

For now, though, the main focus for athletes like Bravo-Young is to work hard, to compete and to lock in on the team’s mantra of internal focus.

“My goal is just to go out there and have fun,” Bravo-Young said. “I just want to go out there and be the best me.”

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