College athletes promote the military through NIL endorsement deals

In September, Paige Bueckers, star guard for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, used back-to-back Instagram posts to recap her trip to Fort Knox. While at the military base in Kentucky, Bueckers spent time with cadets in summer training. She learned about their experiences — experiences far different from her own — during a walk through the woods. She even tried on a gas mask that might be used in combat.

The visit — and the resulting social media content, shared with her more than 1 million followers — was part of Bueckers’s name, image and likeness deal with GoArmy, the U.S. Army’s recruiting arm. It was believed to be the first time a college athlete signed an NIL partnership with a military branch. Then, in October, the Marines ran a campaign with eight college football players, including Oregon State quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, Georgia running back Kendall Milton and UCLA quarterback Chase Griffin.

“NIL absolutely makes sense [for military recruiting] because of the way they can target through social media,” said Jeremiah Favara, a Gonzaga professor who will release a book about U.S. military advertising in the spring. “If someone is swayable, a U.S. Army TikTok account that mass produces an ad is way different than a student-athlete influencer, maybe at your institution, maybe at an institution you’re a fan of, saying: ‘Hey, I recently went to this military thing. I met with the ROTC, and it was really cool.’ It’s a peer-to-peer appeal as opposed to the military being this big institution trying to talk to youth.”

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However logical, these military NIL deals come with a bit of dissonance: With college athletes allowed to earn money for the use of their names, images and likenesses, the military can tap the marketplace for its recruiting efforts. But service academy athletes are not able to strike NIL deals.

The reason? Unlike all other college athletes, those at service academies are classified as employees of their respective military branches, meaning they are subject to the federal law prohibiting military members from using public office for private gain (such as making money by marketing potato chips or a local pizza shop). The government pays tuition and additional expenses for all service academy students, athlete or otherwise. They also receive monthly stipends.

So, no, Air Force’s 8-0 start to this football season didn’t lead to any NIL cash for its players. And, no, the annual Army-Navy game in December, the biggest event on the service academy sports calendar, is not a trampoline to NIL deals. Nathaniel Otto, a former Navy lineman, is in law school at the University of Florida and hopes to work in the NIL world after graduating. When he saw Bueckers’s partnership with the Army, he tilted his head a bit. But he could rationalize the dissonance by thinking about his experience at the Naval Academy.

“We really are treated like employees, which in this case means the federal regulation applies to us,” Otto said. “And I think of it this way, too: If a Navy football player stands in front of a restaurant, whether he’s wearing a shirt with ‘Navy’ on it or it’s just known that he’s on the team, it could easily feel like the Navy is endorsing this or that. I’m not sure that same level of scrutiny applies to a University of Florida player. They are probably seen as their individual brand much more than service academy athletes could ever be.”

Bueckers is part of the evolution of the Army’s efforts to recruit young women. Favara, who studies the ways in which the military uses ads to diversify its ranks, pointed to the Marines running a marketing campaign in Seventeen magazine in the late 1990s. Pairing sports and social media was always a logical next step, he explained, especially given the military’s overt presence in professional and college sports (think flyovers, giant American flags during the national anthem, all those Marines commercials during the Super Bowl). And then came NIL and the ability to partner with prominent college athletes.

In an email to The Washington Post, Laura DeFrancisco, public affairs chief for the Army’s enterprise marketing office, said: “Bueckers was a natural fit for the Army as her followers represent the audience we hope to reach with Army messaging. As a college student herself, Paige offers a peer-to-peer connection within the appropriate age demographic.”

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Andrew Wood, a brand awareness officer for the Marine Corps’ civilian recruiting arm, said in an email to The Post: “This year, a pilot program partnering with [NIL marketplace] Opendorse was recommended to reach new audiences and highlight the parallel values that successful student-athletes and Marines hold. Based on that desired value alignment and in consideration of audience reach and demographic considerations, Opendorse provided candidates which were thoroughly vetted and approved.”

Opendorse ultimately recommended Uiagalelei, Milton, Griffin, Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers, South Carolina running back Dakereon Joyner, Nebraska linebacker Chief Borders, Coastal Carolina quarterback Grayson McCall and Oklahoma State quarterback Alan Bowman. In pay-to-post deals, the athletes shared videos to Twitter and Instagram, discussing how their values align with the Marines’ mission.

Griffin, a senior backup quarterback for UCLA, has signed a range of NIL deals. This month, he launched his own Substack to write about NIL and why schools should share revenue with their athletes. When Opendorse sent the offer from the Marines, he was surprised, saying he had never thought about an NIL partnership with a military branch. But the terms checked Griffin’s key boxes.

Respecting any brand he works with is nonnegotiable. He was a Semper Fidelis all-American in high school, spending a week around Marines in Washington. One of his closest friends at UCLA, team chief of staff Bryce McDonald, is a former Marine and has discussed his service with Griffin. And, critically, the money met Griffin’s market price and was enough that he could give some to his foundation at the L.A. Regional Food Bank.

“So the deal was an extreme net positive for me,” Griffin said, though there was also dissonance when he delivered his end of the agreement. After he posted his video on social media, some people pushed back on him advertising for the military because of its polarizing reputation. He had braced for that response, running the possibility through his risk calculations. But instead of dodging the criticism, he brought it up in a phone interview. He understood.

“Institutions will be criticized if there are abuses of power,” Griffin said. “Any time there is some kind of centralized power, there are people who are going to speak out about it to keep it in check. And I think one of the beauties of this nation is the ability to both support and push these institutions to be better at the same time.”

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