The J.R. Smith undergrad Twitter chronicles have been a delightful highlight of the past few months. The 15-year NBA veteran was drafted straight out of high school in 2004, and after retiring from basketball, decided to get his degree at North Carolina A&T, the largest HBCU in the country. He also made the unprecedented move of becoming a DI athlete after a full professional career — this time, in golf. Before he enrolled in the fall of 2021, the NCAA had to give him special permission to join the golf team as an eligible amateur player, and with their approval, he’s been competing as an Aggie golfer during his freshman year.
Smith’s anecdotes and comments about college on Twitter have been an endearing and hilarious journey into the challenges and realities — some relatable, some not so much — of getting a degree. From classmates in a GroupMe not believing that it’s really him, to struggling with English papers, to debating the merits of joining a frat, Smith is living the life of a regular Division I student-athlete at the tender age of 36.
The newest development is the announcement that he has signed with an agent for NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) representation through Excel Sports. Now, this makes for a really interesting case study that kind of digs down to the root of NIL. After earning tens of millions of dollars during his career with the NBA, any NIL money is probably not going to be a huge splash in the bank account for Smith. So what is the guiding principle of a hypothetical NIL sponsorship in this case?
The announcement has sparked some debate on social media over the ethics of an already wealthy Smith “taking” money from another athlete who hasn’t had such an illustrious career. However, the likelihood of a company offering an NIL deal to a golfer who is not Smith that would be anywhere near the type of deal that they would offer Smith is extremely low. It’s not as though the execs at, say, Titleist, are thinking, “OK, we’ve got x amount of money and one golfer to pick. Who’s it gonna be, guys?”
No, the interesting thing about this deal is that it will likely benefit the sponsor more than it will Smith. While companies who shell out the big bucks to sponsor players like Bryce Young or Caleb Williams are planning on getting a return on investment. Young and Williams are also getting a lot more spending money in their pockets (not that they wouldn’t have gone on to make millions either way). For athletes within programs that get full-team sponsorships like Georgia Tech, there’s a huge bonus for the players who might have not otherwise been able to secure a deal. But this hypothetical Smith deal is fascinating in more ways than one because it’s so different from any existing precedent.
The way I see it, he’s going to have a lot of freedom to choose who he wants to work with, and how he wants to advertise their product. Another thing that usually comes along with working toward this type of deal might not be a necessity — Smith doesn’t have to be the greatest of the great in his new sport to get a sponsorship. His name recognition is enough. And if we were all serious about letting the free market work and allowing student athletes to profit off their name, image, and likeness, then there’s not much solid ground to stand on in an argument against Smith’s hypothetical sponsorship deals.
This could also come as a real positive in the world of golf, which remains a world largely filled with white players. This exclusivity is something that the most famous Black golfer of all time, Tiger Woods, has spoken and written about as a prevailing issue in the sport. A well-recognized Black college golfer, though, would be a welcome face in the sport, particularly one playing for an HBCU. College golf doesn’t exactly have the largest following, but putting a face like J.R. Smith’s on the sport not only encourages diversity and tells young non-white golfers that there’s a legitimate future for them in the sport, but also boosts the entire sport of college golf in the mainstream public eye.
In short, any NIL deal Smith rakes in will no doubt benefit him, but the advantages of such a sponsorship have the potential to go far above and beyond Smith’s bank account. With the wide-open, brand-new state of NIL ahead of us, this athlete will be an interesting one to watch, and could actually help us define what the future of college sponsorship might look like.