College athletics have been entrenched in a transformation in recent years. With the latest iteration of conference realignment and the newly minted Name Image Likeness (NIL) funds, money has been flying and the NCAA of old is a distant memory.
Last summer, incoming athletic director Blake James commented on Boston College’s stance on NIL:
“I think each school has to take their own approach,” James said. “My belief is that we as an institution shouldn't be involved if there’s opportunities for young people to capitalize on their name image and likeness."
This seemingly sent a wave of distress to the BC fanbase as many thought that the school would surely fall behind and not properly utilize the NIL avenue. Universities are unable to directly pay their student-athletes. But this is where the collectives such as Friends of the Heights come into play. Over time, James has privately been very supportive of individual student freedoms as well as backing the NIL initiative.
Friends of the Heights was founded in direct response to collectives popping up at peer universities. The BC collective has taken the next step in hiring the former University of Hartford men’s basketball coach (and Boston College alum) Tom Devitt to lead the campaign.
Leaving the coaching ranks to get involved on the Heights was an easy choice for Devitt, who expressed deep affinity for the school. Devitt's rise through the college coaching ranks beginning being on the staff for the BC basketball team including trip to the Elite Eight in 1994, his first year on the staff. His passion and desire to see the Eagles soar back to these levels of excellence are evident.
“The court of public opinion believes the NIL waters are a bit polluted, I wanted to do this at a place where that would not be possible,” Devitt said. “Individual states, whose laws govern NIL don't quite know what to do with it. NCAA guidelines are considered interim. There are going to be changes. There is a level of fluidity.
“Simply put, BC will always do things the right way. Impacting the community to its maximum capacity and really empowering student athletes for benefiting from what the Supreme Court has said college sports has been lacking. Whatever the NCAA and state laws state we can do, we’re going to do.”
For many years, a Boston College degree was a strong selling point to student athletes. But with the new terms of compensation, it’s been feared that education alone would no longer be a point of interest for prospective recruits.
"We're initially behind other institutions, but we’re making great progress with the initiative every day,” Devitt said. “I don’t think we mind being currently behind these institutions because ultimately, we want the student athletes who value the BC degree to remain here. And if he or she values the BC degree, they may not be concerned with other things.”
What does an NIL collective do?
The NIL idea on the surface is a simple construct: Collegiate athletes are permitted to be compensated in various ways, among them jersey sales, advertising, or video game character usage.
Many blue chip schools have been linked to handing large six-figure sums to players using the newly minted system as de facto free agency to retain talent and strengthen rosters.
“BC is committed to two things; empowering the student-athlete and doing it the right way,” Devitt said. “A large part of both consists of a 501c3 element of the organization. What that means is by law, we must partner with other not for profit organizations -- like the YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs and organizations that assist the homeless and poor.
“We are able to give student athletes the ability to earn NIL benefits through charitable endeavors. I think it’s an unbelievable concept that the community is being impacted in such a positive way.”
Devitt wants to make it clear that this initiative is not a "pay for play" model. The players are given the opportunity to earn their NIL benefits, by which they are also able to make positive impacts in the greater Boston communities.
The Boston College mantra has long been "men and women for others." This Initiative allows the student-athletes to trying immerse themselves in the community. "BC athletes are not being forced to work within the communities for compensation, in fact they are really excited to do it." Devitt said.
Linking Boston College more directly with the surrounding communities is a win for everyone. The athletes get more exposure, the communities are being helped and the bond is being created among the parties. Historically, BC has struggled to create strong relationships with the surrounding areas. This should help fortify that.
The collective's vision of positively impacting communities does not stop at non profits. Picture it as a two pronged model as Friends of the Heights has two arms. The for profit side allows athletes to partner with companies to be spokespersons for restaurants and other such businesses. For profit is linked more with advertising and being a representative of that company.
"A lot of the small town businesses want to support their hometown heroes,” Devitt said. They really want to support these student athletes, whether through a social media campaign or appearance."
This for profit model allows student athletes to receive benefits as well. Moreover, many such businesses have been smaller "mom and pop" shops in the respective athletes’ hometowns. Once again, these opportunities give the student athletes exposure and as well NIL benefits, while small businesses get exposure within their communities. Win-win for both sides.
“Our student-athletes are very good people of high character. Our coaches wouldn’t have that any other way. And the reality is they’re impacting the community and enjoying it along the way,” Devitt said.
With all that is happening in the college athletics landscape, Boston College and Friends of the Heights seek to remain competitive and utilize the system for the student athletes’ benefits.
"In college athletics, great programs spread by word of mouth,” Devitt said. “We are attempteing to shout this initiative from the rooftops. We look forward to planning many events that will bring awareness to this terrific initiative so folks can contribute. We want to constantly have engagements in the community and have a presence at athletic events, alumni events and even small social gatherings.”
As the old adage goes, it takes a village. With the passionate fan base the Eagles have, fans now have the chance to directly make an impact in the lives of the kids. Not only can they receive the opportunity to acquire a Boston College degree, but they can earn a living making their college experience much more comfortable for themselves and their families. It will take all of us.
Please consider becoming a member of Friends of the Heights below: