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Third in a three-part blog series on a concept that the author R. Todd Erkel calls “the battle for meaning.” We will look at the evolution of higher education marketing and its relationship to code, content, Google’s algorithm, and page one organic search results. 

The Battle for Meaning in the Age of Name-Image-Likeness

Once upon a time in higher education brand marketing, colleges and universities believed that their brand position, legacy, and equity would be adequately protected by something as benign as their brand standards manual. 

Then came the U.S. Supreme Court ruling  (NCAA v. Alston) on July 1, 2021, and the era of Name-Image-Likeness. Seemingly overnight, changes in federal and state law hit colleges and universities generally, and higher education brand marketing specifically, with the speed and impact of a wayward comet. 

In parts one and two of this blog series, we looked at how the “battle for meaning” played out in the context of public health and vaccination, and the relationship between consumer brands and their chosen social justice causes.

In this post, we look at the rapid expansion of the Name-Image-Likeness economy, and how a new “battle for meaning” complicates an already tangled relationship between an institution, its athletes and boosters, and the countless voices and influences that comprise a school’s athletic identity and reach.

What is NIL?

Name, image and likeness (NIL) are three elements that make up the legal concept known as “right of publicity.” The right of publicity, sometimes called “personality rights,” is an individual’s right to control and profit from the commercial use of his/her name, image or likeness.

The Name-Image-Likeness disruption actually began in 2014 and 2015 when current and former Division I football and basketball players filed new challenges to the rules imposed by the NCAA and eleven of its conferences limiting the compensation that athletes may receive for their services.

With its July, 2021 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a district court ruling that the National Collegiate Athletic Association rules limiting education-related compensation violated the Sherman Act. Shortly after the Court’s decision, the NCAA voted of its own accord to allow a student athlete to receive compensation in exchange for use of their name, image, and likeness. 

How does NIL prompt “battle for meaning?”

As colleges and universities enter a third year of the fast-evolving Name-Image-Likeness era, questions remain about the dynamic — played out in every related Google search — between athletic and institutional goals. Those questions arise from three areas: legal, fundraising, and brand reputation.


Experts recognize that the boundaries between NIL changes and long standing Title IX federal law create vast new areas of legal interpretation and potential jeopardy. Today, nearly 225,000 women participate in NCAA college athletics, about 44 percent of the total. At the Division III level, more than 83,000 women compete for championships across 14 sports. 

Aspects of Title IX related to disparate treatment and impact may have possible counterparts in NIL. As college and university counsel teams sort out nuanced distinctions (equal, equitable and equivalent), their marketing and communications peers will have to consider the content and Google keyword implications.


While NIL made it legal for private donors to give direct payment to college athletes — at any level — the ruling did not spell out how this exchange would take place. So-called NIL collectives — ad-hoc groups of donors — have filled the void. New collectives sprout up each day, largely making up rules of conduct as they go. At the NCAA Division I level, colleges and universities face profound questions about who owns the school’s brand equity and voice. Are colleges now competing with their own free-agent athletes for donor support? And how does a whole new game theory evolve and shape every new piece of content and targeted keyword? 

Questions about code/content/impact persist at Division II and Division III colleges and universities as well. A decade of declining state appropriations have forced many Division II schools to raise private dollars to sustain athletics. How will legislators perceive need and filter information in the fog of NIL uncertainty and hype? Do you have a keyword strategy for this and other audiences?

Division III colleges and their athletic programs have historically positioned the opportunity to compete as part of a larger experience of shared growth and community. How will those ideals survive in the climate of “give me my NIL money?” The contrasts grow even sharper at faith-based colleges, where  formation of the individual is tied directly to service for others and for God. Do you have a keyword strategy that connects mission, athletics and future capital campaigns?

Brand Reputation

While not uncommon to find distinct approaches to brand management between a college and university and its athletic programs, changes brought on by NIL and the transfer portal introduce new tensions. We could be watching the tight connection between athlete, team and brand begin to break. The most high-profile NIL-supported athletes have become social media celebrities for hire. Questions about who occupies the foreground and background — and who owns Google page one — require a higher degree of planning and intentionality. 

The “meaning” of higher education

Years before the arrival of NIL, Wesleyan University President Michael Roth observed this about higher education and its approach to brand marketing and communication: “The richness of the curriculum and high quality of the instruction may receive a nod, but they are rarely celebrated. Promoting everything except what happens between faculty and students may be good for short-term appeal, but the result is to make the entire enterprise of higher education more fragile.”

NIL raises new questions about the experience shared by athletes and non-athletes, and by NIL’s biggest winners and everyone else.  As colleges and universities look to convince prospects that a traditional four year degree will prepare them for the task of integrating into companies and communities, the “get me mine” element of NIL money lingers. 

For a very select few, NIL support will be life-altering. For most, it will represent a brief chapter on a much longer life journey. While higher education brand marketing and communication teams do not control the entire narrative, the ability to engage and win small battles for meaning will set some schools on a better course into the future.


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