One of the most well-worn clichés in sports: It’s not about the name on the back of the jersey; it’s about the name on the front.
For the highest-profile athletes in college sports, that dynamic is changing.
It’s not just the name on the front of the jersey anymore — it’s the name on the back. And the name of their shoe brand. And their energy drink. And their hair products. And on and on.
Angel Reese’s return to the court for the No. 7-ranked LSU Tigers on Thursday night was a relief for a lot of people. College hoops fans who watched Reese blossom as a national star last year were glad to see her restored after her four-game absence. So were Baltimoreans, who have come to see the St. Frances alum as an example of hope for the city’s aspiring athletes and a role model for Black girls.
Coach Kim Mulkey, who won her 700th career game, was probably one of the biggest beneficiaries — not only because Reese scored 19 points but because it ended an uncomfortably long stretch of avoiding straightforward answers on Reese’s absence.
“Just proud of how she handled herself,” Mulkey said. “Proud she’s back to the Angel everybody knows.”
What was unsaid: The Angel Everyone Knows is not just a phenomenal, title-winning basketball player — she’s a money-making machine.
At just 21 years old, Reese has made the NCAA’s NIL system work tremendously in her favor. Cultivating her image as the brash, competitive and glamorous Bayou Barbie, brands are tripping over themselves to be associated with her. She inked a deal with Reebok in October that gives her creative input on upcoming apparel lines, and fellow LSU product Shaquille O’Neal said, “There is no one making a bigger impact on the game right now than Angel Reese.”
She has deals with Zoa Energy, the energy drink sponsored by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Mielle Organics, Tampax and Starry soda, among a host of paid partnerships on her social media channels. She was photographed for Teen Vogue, Bazaar and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. And, as she was making all this money, Reese gave back. She and her mom have funded scholarships for St. Frances and done other community giveaways through her foundation.
For all intents and purposes, Reese is a pro, with an NIL valuation of $1.7 million, according to On3 Sports. So it was jarring to see Reese and her brand get tied up in the kind of uncertainty that doesn’t usually happen at the pro level.
Reese’s absence was reminiscent of the NCAA days of the past. She simply was not on the court, and Mulkey only ever offered that it was due to “locker room issues.” The 61-year-old coach (whose personality is often as flamboyant as her sparkling or feather-adorned outfits) was clipped and cantankerous as she told the public they didn’t need to know details of whether Reese was even practicing with the Tigers.
It would be unwise to speculate why Reese was benched for four games (although many on social media recklessly have). Upon her return, Reese said: “Mental health is the most important thing before anything, and I’m going to make sure I’m OK before anything because I don’t want to cause harm or any cancer in the locker room.” It would be understandable if Reese’s considerable commitments have taken a mental or emotional toll.
But Mulkey’s and LSU’s choice to treat Reese as a college kid — sitting her quietly in the corner without explaining why to the wider world — underscores an emerging contradiction in the NIL era. Reese isn’t just some kid; she serves the interests of a host of corporate entities.
Reese noted that O’Neal checked on her every day of her absence from the team, presumably to offer support as a mentor. But, frankly, he was also monitoring one of Reebok’s biggest investments. It’s easy to imagine other companies paying Reese, one of the faces of women’s basketball, having the same curiosity.
This has been coming for some time, and it was a huge reason, up until a few years ago, many insiders tried to hold off the NIL tide as the O’Bannon v. NCAA lawsuit loomed over the entire enterprise. College locker rooms were fiefdoms, and coaches and administrators were the rulers who frequently kept such decisions as benching players behind closed doors if they could, or cited a need to be discreet and declined to illuminate if they couldn’t — much like Mulkey and LSU did with Reese.
As I reported stories on the changing landscape then, I remember college administrators describing “a slippery slope” that they claimed would make NCAA sports less popular but perhaps more pressingly would loosen the control they had over the whole system. I could see then it was a losing battle. How could the NCAA justify Nick Saban supplementing millions in annual salary with insurance commercials while his players couldn’t take a dollar for an autograph?
The power dynamics have changed, with athletes working directly with companies to earn lucrative deals that are contingent on their star appeal. LeBron James calls this “keeping the main thing the main thing,” the understanding that being on the court (or field or pool or whatever other field of play) makes the entire machine churn. If they feel like they aren’t earning either the playing time or the off-court money they deserve, then they can move on — in fact, Reese did this when she transferred from Maryland, touting LSU’s NIL resources as a factor.
With that should come more accountability and more transparency. Colleges aren’t even required to give an injury report for games, as pro teams do. With no collective bargaining agreement in place, coaches can bench players for rubbing them the wrong way, or they can keep players on the court who have been accused of serious infractions.
Reese’s income is pro level, but college guidelines are stuck in the past. With NIL deals pouring in, and companies invested in keeping athletes like Reese on the court, there’s a need for change.
One hopes, of course, that all is well that ends well. Reese told the media Thursday, “I’m at LSU because of Kim Mulkey,” and said she needs Mulkey in her life. Given the vagueness of all involved, it’s hard to read what happened, or if it was a sign of some issue that will linger. Perhaps Mulkey was acting in Reese’s best interests by shielding her, but there’s certainly no clear hint from LSU what it might be from. The Tigers, whose never-back-down mentality has shaped the program’s ambition, are inviting unyielding scrutiny for the rest of the year, because no one knows if it’s something that is actually resolved.
A lot of people will be watching closely. There’s a lot of money at stake.
This column was updated to reflect that Angel Reese scored 19 points in LSU’s game Thursday night.