BYU football players say companies underdelivered on promises to pay athletes

Players promoted protein bars, NFTs and other products after being told they’d receive a percentage of the sales, but they haven’t seen that money.

In the middle of a training camp scrimmage last summer, Cosmo the Cougar dropped from the sky into LaVell Edwards Stadium, a stark white parachute billowing behind him, to announce a renewal of BYU football’s most celebrated name, image and likeness deal.

With cameras primed to capture the moment on social media, and the scoreboards displaying the Built logo, CEO Nick Greer said the Utah-based protein bar company would continue to pay tuition for walk-ons and that scholarship players would each receive $1,000. The deal to cover tuition for walk-on players was the first of its kind when it was announced to much fanfare a year earlier, not long after the NCAA first allowed college athletes to be compensated without losing their amateur status.

As Greer liked to say, “Florida has Gatorade. Oregon has Nike. BYU has Built Bar.”

Then Greer announced another incentive. Built would sell a CougarTail Bar, an homage to the popular 16-inch doughnut sold at BYU football games, and 15% of the profits would go directly to players who signed NIL contracts with the company. Greer told players $150,000 worth of the CougarTail bar had been sold already.

Almost a year later, the tuition money and $1,000 checks have cleared, but players say not every aspect of the deal has been upheld. They’re still waiting for deposits to drop from CougarTail sales.

“It didn’t sit well with us,” said one player who was in the stadium that day and has used his platform to promote the brand. “We were posting [about Built] and weren’t seeing any of the money from it.”

Adding to the confusion, BYU and Built have given conflicting statements about where that money is and whether it was ever received.

If the NIL landscape at BYU seems messy and tilting toward chaos, it can sometimes be. On multiple occasions over the past two years, companies have brought promising promotions to BYU only to falter at the goal line. But the confusion isn’t limited to Provo. The lack of transparency around deals — some tipping into millions of dollars, others as small as a few hundred — has become so commonplace that the NCAA has called upon Congress to add some guardrails. In a world where NIL deals make headlines every day, the reality can be less glamorous and less lucrative than it appears.

The Tribune spoke to six current and former BYU players who described their NIL experiences and said athletes received less money than they were promised and, in some cases, none at all. Five of the players who spoke to the Tribune were granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Waiting for payday

After years of lawsuits and pressure, the NCAA began allowing athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness (think player appearances and endorsement deals) in July 2021. The move has been a win for many college athletes, especially high-profile stars at the nation’s biggest schools: LSU gymnast Livvy Dunne has reportedly parlayed her social media following into more than $3.5 million in deals. Some estimate LeBron James’ son, Bronny, could make north of $7 million in his first year of college.

The value of most deals, which can range from corporate sponsorships to booster donations intended to go directly to players, is unknown. The NIL experts at On3.com estimate Utah quarterback Cam Rising could be worth some $800,000. Across all of college football, though, the average NIL deal is believed to be more modest: an estimated $3,400.

For the first two years of college athletics’ NIL era, BYU head coach Kalani Sitake has stressed two things. He told players he prefers NIL deals that are teamwide and in line with the principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates the university.

He also urged players to embrace the college experience over chasing a paycheck.

“NIL, for us, will be different,” Sitake said in April. “I’m not against our players earning more from NIL as long as it is along [those two principles]. It has opened opportunities for our players to put cash in their hands. But at the same time, it will not be our focus either.”

There are players who have been well compensated in the two years since NIL money started flowing into college sports. The Cougars’ top players last year — including quarterback Jaren Hall and wide receiver Puka Nacua — made five- and six-figure sums thanks to individual deals. Mountain America Credit Union paid Nacua $40,000 last year, sources said.

(Jaren Wilkey | BYU) Built Bar co-founder Nick Greer announced a historic NIL agreement to the BYU Football team. Built’s individual NIL agreements with BYU players include compensation to all members of the team, including compensation to all walk-on players in the amount comparable to the costs of tuition for the academic year.

Most Cougars earned less than that, but they did not blame Sitake. Instead, they saw his message as indicative of a wider NIL problem. As one player put it, “Sitake fights for us, but he also knows the money isn’t always coming and that really isn’t up to him. It puts him in a tough spot because he is trying to hold it all together.”

Deals can be negotiated in many ways: directly with players or through their respective agents. In some cases, such as with BYU and Built, universities or their officially endorsed NIL collectives can be directly involved in facilitating deals for players.

The BYU football players who spoke to the Tribune expressed frustration with a number of corporate sponsorships they say failed to pay them what they were promised.

There was OhanaX, a Provo-based student-athlete brand marketing agency. It pitched itself as a conduit between players and companies with marketing opportunities. Company representatives promised that if players signed with them they could make “life-changing money.”

OhanaX announced it brokered at least one deal, linking BYU players with FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange platform. Each player who signed was to receive $500. In November 2022, FTX filed for bankruptcy. Ultimately, the players who did sign only got $100, players said. OhanaX folded and is no longer involved with BYU football, sources said.

BYU later partnered with Ocavu, a company that planned to sell NFTs of players. The way the deal was structured was that BYU would sell licensing rights to Ocavu so it could make the NFT. Then players would sign individual contracts with Ocavu and receive a portion of the profits when someone bought their NFT. In a news conference BYU held with Ocavu owner Jon Cheney the day the partnership was announced, Cheney estimated the deal could be worth millions of dollars.

(Photo illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

One player said that he got text messages from people saying they had bought his NFT. Yet none of the players interviewed by the Tribune received payment from Ocavu.

“Nothing there either,” one player said. “We kind of didn’t expect much at that point.”

Ocavu laid off about half of its staff in November and did not return multiple requests for comment.

Some smaller deals never materialized either, players said. For example, players were told about potential deals with Huggies Diapers — playing on the idea that many BYU players have young kids. It never came to fruition. Later players were also told about Dollar Shave Club as a potential NIL partner. Again, this seemed like the right fit with the Honor Code not allowing BYU athletes to have beards. It also fell through.

“It felt like BYU was telling us what we wanted to hear to keep us happy, but it never actually happened,” one player said. “People would present and say it was ‘life-changing money.’ Then nothing.”

Need for reform?

BYU players aren’t the only ones not seeing the money they believe they were promised. Jaden Rashada, a top quarterback prospect, has become the posterboy for NIL deals gone wrong. In January he asked to be released from his commitment to the University of Florida after, according to media reports, an NIL deal with a third party went south. The deal’s reported value? $13 million. Rashada has since committed to Arizona State.

The confusion isn’t helped by the array of NIL laws. They vary from state to state and approaches vary from school to school.

The NCAA has asked Congress to enact nationwide NIL regulations. During a subcommittee hearing in March, the lack of transparency in the NIL landscape was a recurring theme.

“The existing environment consists of recruiting inducements, tampering, and ultimately pay for play,” Pat Chun, Washington State’s athletic director, told the committee, “and is wrought with pitfalls and misinformation.”

Former Florida football star and NFL tight end Trey Burton also took issue with the inconsistency among states, schools and potential sponsors in his statement to the committee.

“These athletes have been thrown in the fire with limited resources [and] no infrastructure to help them succeed and to protect them from bad actors,” Burton said. “There needs to be a uniform set of rules and rules that everybody has to play by no matter where the student plays or how large or small the school or the sport is.”

Still, Burton said he doesn’t want lawmakers to take the drastic step of trying to stop or limit the ability of players to make money off their name, image and likeness.

“In my opinion,” he said, “the good that’s come with NIL has heavily outweighed the bad.”

At BYU, officials hope their officially endorsed NIL collective, the Royal Blue Collective, can help ease some troubles. Officials hope the coalition of boosters will give the program a more organized fundraising arm for NIL and cut back on the reliance on one-off deals.

Players shortchanged

Billy Nixon, a former BYU staffer who is now the director of sports marketing at Built, acknowledged NIL deals fall through all the time. But he said Built has made good on its promises to BYU and its players.

“NIL right now is littered with deals falling through the cracks. I want to be careful because Built has done something that has been amazing for the BYU football program. I worry that sometimes we focus on these little misunderstandings,” Nixon said. “Built has exceeded every commitment that has been made to players.”

Built has contributed more than $1 million to BYU football via NIL, the company said, including $170,000 paid to scholarship players.

Players confirmed that walk-ons have received the tuition money that was promised. Scholarship players received $1,000 and a pair of shoes after Built announced its initial deal in 2021. But players said they were under the impression they would also get a cut of sales of Built Bars in exchange for using their social media platforms to share the company’s promo codes.

“We didn’t get it,” said former BYU receiver Neil Pau’u, who was a senior on that 2021 team.

(Trevor Christensen | Special to The Tribune) Brigham Young University's Neil Pau'u celebrates a touchdown against Virginia during the second half at LaVell Edwards Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021, in Provo.

Built disputes that athletes were told they would get a percentage of sales that year.

Players were encouraged to share Built products and promo codes in 2022. This time, players were explicitly promised a 15% share of sales from the CougarTail bar. One player also noted that during Greer’s presentation, he told players the company had already sold $150,000 worth of the bars in the summer of 2022. At practice, players calculated how much that would mean they could earn.

“We had determined we all should have at least $180 each,” one player said.

Built says it has paid 15% of its sales from the CougarTail bar into a football discretionary fund for athletes as part of a licensing agreement. BYU says it has not received those payments. BYU’s associate director for trademark licensing Adam Parker said routing the money to a discretionary fund would not be standard practice: Any payment in a licensing agreement is made to the Collegiate Licensing Company, which oversees licensing for the majority of larger schools across the country, Parker said. CLC then pays the university at large. CLC does not pay, and cannot pay, into something as granular as a specific discretionary fund.

Courtney Altemus said it’s not uncommon for companies to announce splashy NIL deals that aren’t exactly what they seem.

Altemus, a co-founder of Advance NIL, which specializes in educating and consulting athletes about financial decisions, formerly worked as a money manager on Wall Street. She said NIL deals can be akin to NFL contracts where the announced salary is eye-popping but most of it isn’t guaranteed.

“It looks fantastic on paper, and for other schools that might be trying to recruit against the school, it can look really daunting,” she said. “It can attract student athletes to numbers without [them] really looking at the substance of what that [deal] was all about.”

There are any number of ways for athletes to be taken advantage of, Altemus said.

“We’ve seen it from the beginning, as early as 2021,” she said. “And I think that a huge part of it is lack of understanding on the athlete’s part or the family of the athletes. And what I mean by that is when these deals are done, if they don’t know the right questions to ask, or if they don’t ask for a contract, they may not know that there’s other mechanisms in place or other milestones they need to reach to get paid.”

Then again, sometimes companies just overpromise, which could be what happened with Built at BYU.

“We have had a number of situations where a company wants to make a big PR announcement. You know, ‘I’ve come in and I’m going to pay the athletes X. I’m going to cover the tuition of every walk on,’” she said. “And they may have every intention of paying according to what they said. But they haven’t ironed out those details or they haven’t put together a contract yet. And so, student athletes walk out of there like ‘Oh, OK, cool. I’m going to just start posting. We’re going to make a lot of money.’ And the company may not be able to deliver on exactly what was said in the beginning. And again, it could be totally innocent.”

In all the confusion and conflicting accounts, it’s been the players left without the money they were told they’d receive.

“We just had these most hyped-up presentations ever,” one player said, “and nothing really came of them.”

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