LOS ANGELES — Name, image, and likeness (NIL) is all the furor on Capitol Hill, college campuses, high schools, and at the inaugural UNINTERRUPTED Film Festival.
“Is this the new reality?” New York Giants linebacker Kayvon Thibodeaux asked, who moderated an NIL panel featuring USC’s Juju Watkins, Malachi Nelson, and Ceyair Wright.
The panel was part of the first-ever film festival celebrated by UNINTERRUPTED, LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s athlete empowerment brand, in partnership with Tribeca.
It also happened as NCAA president Charlie Barker said that NIL’s current structure could be “terrible” for athletes, and as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seek to rush through federal legislation concerning NIL deals.
“The main thing is still the main thing,” Watkins, an incoming freshman at USC who was the no. 1 high school basketball player last season, said.
“I’m still in the gym, making sure that all this NIL and outside distractions aren’t getting to me,” she added. “My mindset is still the same — of course I’m blessed to be able to benefit off my hard work financially — so I’m just glad to be in this space and time to where athletes are finally able to benefit from the hard work that they put in.”
Watkins, who played her high school ball at Sierra Canyon in Chatsworth, signed her NIL deal with Nike when she was a senior last year.
She is now also partners with Ready Life, a financial services group that works to support people from underserved communities obtain a mortgage. Watkins aims to help her community of Watts through this deal.
“My dad always tried to preach entrepreneurship, even at a young age,” Watkins told The Sporting Tribune. “I never knew I would be experiencing this so early in my life, so I’ve always been educated on topics like dealing with money, trying to not to spend, so I would say that this experience is helping me learn more and just be more strategic with [NIL].”
This reality — student-athletes signing deals to be compensated before even making it to college — appears to be here to stay.
Like Watkins, USC quarterback Malachi Nelson also signed his first NIL deal when he was in high school. Nelson played at Los Alamitos, where he was a five-star recruit and the California Player of the Year as a senior.
He admits that NIL was a “whirlwind” for him at first.
“The credit goes to the people around me — my team, my family,” Nelson told The Sporting Tribune. He most recently signed an NIL deal with USC alumni-backed collective House of Victory.
California was the first state to grant high school athletes the chance to sign NIL agreements, and others such as Missouri, New York, Colorado, and Kentucky have followed over the years. High schoolers in Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, or Texas, for instance, cannot receive compensation right now without it threatening their amateur status.
Largely, it was California’s Fair Pay to Play Act that set the pace nationwide regarding NIL legislation, high school or college.
But even in the Golden State, NIL deals can still lead to a stigma for athletes, who they say can be derided for off-court interests or obligations.
“People looked at me like, ‘You don’t really focus on football’,” Ceyair Wright, a defensive back for the Trojans who will be a redshirt sophomore this season, said.
He has been an actor since high school and has appeared in Space Jam 2: A New Legacy among other credits. When Lincoln Riley replaced Clay Helton in November 2021, Wright says he had to do “a lot of hard work” to convince his new coaching staff that he wanted to be on the field.
“[They] were kind of hesitant to put me in the game and play me,” he said.
More than 800 attendees, including LeBron James and Klutch Sports Group CEO Rich Paul, attended the first UNINTERRUPTED Film Festival.
The one-day event also featured a discussion between NBA MVP Joel Embiid and Maverick Carter to present the former’s upcoming production studio and a live Draymond Green Show with Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young.
GOLIATH, a three-part documentary series about the life and career of Wilt Chamberlain, made its world premiere. That was accompanied by the U.S. premiere of Black Ice, a film about the challenges faced by BIPOC hockey players, and an exclusive look at Destination NBA: A League Odyssey.