Gators stressing importance of NIL support

Mike Peterson understands college football stardom. The former Florida linebacker was a part of two SEC Championship teams and a National Championship-winning squad and achieved personal accolades such as first-team All-American, first-team All-SEC and a spot in the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame .

Peterson’s familiarity with immense success at the college level extends beyond himself, too. NOTot including the playoffs, Peterson’s younger brother, Adrian, finished his career at Georgia Southern with a Division I record 6,559 rushing yards and won the Walter Payton Award in 1999, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

Asked how he would have fared on the NIL front had he played in an era that allowed it, Peterson didn’t mince words.

“Yeah,” he quipped, “I would’ve done pretty well.”

Now more than two decades removed from his college playing days, Peterson said he recognizes NIL’s rapidly growing importance, stating that he “definitely [agrees] that the players do need to get paid.”

However, the first-year Florida outside linebackers coach also has reservations about the name, image and likeness opportunities being afforded to collegiate athletes, citing its potential to influence high schoolers and transfers to choose schools “for the wrong reasons” and forget “why they play the game.”

“You take me, you take a lot of the older guys, you get into this game because you love it, you grew up playing, played it as a kid,” Peterson said. “Of course one day you want to do it for a living, and you should get paid for it. But I don’t want the money to get in the way of the love of the game.”

According to Florida director of player engagement and NIL Marcus Castro-Walker, concerns like Peterson’s are more than reasonable considering the vastly unknown nature of NIL and what it could become. In fact, Castro-Walker said he has “a little worry” himself.

But it’s those concerned and the need to mitigate them that make Castro-Walker’s role in Florida’s off-field staff so critical as he is largely responsible for supporting the team’s athletes and ensuring they know what they’re signing up for when they engage in a new deal.

He is also in charge of maintaining the team’s focus as it relates to NIL opportunities and how they are handled.

“NIL at the University of Florida isn’t about players getting paid,” Castro-Walker said. “The approach is players being able to build a financial foundation, right? So it’s not about just getting paid and spending money, it’s about educating yourself on how to become financially, for lack of a better word, smart. Like, know what you’re doing, know how to invest, know how to save and know how to basically create a routine.”

There is no handbook for players and coaches to guide them through the constantly-evolving NIL landscape, but Florida is trying to do its part to help provide one. Under the direction of head coach Billy Napierthe Gators have several staff members, including Castro-Walker, dedicated to financial literacy education and professional development through the team’s GatorMade program.

“Think, not only preparing them for jobs, for opportunities, for networking, but then also the skills that go along with that,” senior director of player relations and GatorMade Savannah Bailey said. “What does it look like to be good at public speaking? What does it look like to be able to tell your story through your brand or establish your brand? Those sorts of things.”

According to Bailey and Castro-Walker, the team’s goal is to foster the right environment regarding NIL by thoroughly educating its players on how to properly deal with it. While education alone won’t allow the Gators to completely circumnavigate potential issues, Castro-Walker said it can still help.

“If there’s a freshman going to a school making $8 million on an $8 million contract, hasn’t played a snap in college football yet, but you have an All-American corner that’s not even touching that kind of money, what is that going to do to a locker room?” he said. “So yeah, there’s going to have to be some regulation.”

While the system is still lacking uniformity, Castro-Walker said it’s becoming more and more imperative that fans and boosters do their part to support universities in the NIL space. The more financial support that exists the more level the playing field can be for a larger number of athletes to earn financial opportunities.

And, on top of that, Castro-Walker said NIL support will play a hand in Florida’s ability to win championships. He said it’s the case everywhere.

“I can’t tell a booster, like, ‘Hey, you know, go give this much money to this collective,’ he said. “I can’t do that, but what I can do is I can say, ‘Look, this is the need, and this is the need because these are what these other schools that we compete with have.’ To be competitive in the game and win championships, you have to be competitive in this space. Here’s the picture of what’s going on.”

As things stand, the most effective way fans can help contribute to Florida’s NIL efforts are through its Gator Collective, Castro-Walker said. According to the Gator Collective Twitter page, the program is “Gator Fans Creating NIL Opportunities for Gators Athletes.”

It hosts meet-and-greets, question-and-answer sessions with athletes, and more. Fans can sign up for plans as inexpensive as $1.99 a week and as expensive as $999.99 a month.

“If you have a collective, the collective can legally raise money with boosters, with the fans, and now they have a pool to pay salaries, right?” Castro-Walker said. “And as long as the players are doing the work for collectives, for example, like the Gator Collective here, they’re getting paid salaries monthly, right? And that’s completely changed the landscape because now, I hate to say this, but whoever has the biggest pockets can now play the game.”

Castro-Walker said he and others in his department are still learning more about NIL as they go, picking up new information and tactics as they encounter different situations. One thing Castro-Walker said he knows for sure, though, is teams and fan bases must quickly accept the new aspect of college athletics. If not, they can quickly get left behind.

“If you have structure and you have a good support team behind it,” he said. “it’s not going to ruin the sport.”

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