This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.
As schools are reopening across the country, we’re seeing a different kind of messaging on social media. College students are posting on Instagram to share COVID-19 safety information from their campuses. According to reports, schools like the University of Missouri are actually paying some of their students to be official brand ambassadors and influencers for their schools.
I mean, is anything more American than this development?
The concept is dicey. While on the surface it makes some sense, because American universities are run like businesses, the implications and consequences are much more complicated than if an average corporation ran similar influencer campaigns. Like my former colleague Anne Helen Petersen pointed out on Twitter, if college students are indebted to their schools, they can’t openly speak their truths or be critical of them.
When it comes to pandemic-related content, the stakes are so high that I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say it is an actual matter of life or death. Anne Helen reported in one of her recent newsletters that it appears popular twin influencers Brooklyn and Bailey McKnight may have a preestablished relationship with Baylor University, where they’re currently enrolled. The two have shared tagged Instagrams about Baylor in the past. However, a recent post they shared to their 5.8 million followers about contracting COVID-19 has raised some concerns. Brooklyn and Bailey made a point to say in their long Instagram caption that it “is NOT due to in person classes that this happened.”
If the twins have an influencer-spon partnership with the school, it’s then hard to trust their words.
(I reached out to the twins and to the university to ask if they could confirm or deny any previous or ongoing brand deals. I also reached out to a handful of Mizzou students this week who shared curated COVID-19–related content to ask about their alleged partnerships, but none of them have gotten back to me.)
Anyway, the ethics of any alleged spon between an educational institution and its students is tricky, to put it diplomatically. But most of the details are speculative at this point, and it’s not my job to litigate them. I wanted to address the college influencer stuff because it’s made me think about another issue: the controversy of college athletes as brand ambassadors who aren’t paid.
In my opinion, college athletes have historically been influencers for their schools. Not only do they train and perform rigorously on top of their schoolwork, they’re constantly auditioning for pro league scouts when they’re out on the field. Can you imagine that kind of pressure? Their performances also bring in hype and brand recognition, which translates to ungodly amounts of money pouring in for their schools and the National Collegiate Athletic Association at large. In 2018, the association reported over $1 billion in revenue. Schools depend on high-achieving athletes to sustain the business.
Student-athletes are the faces of their schools and have a huge amount of influence. It’s why a school like Duke University has a lot more visibility and brand recognition than a school that has similar academic standards. So why aren’t student-athletes compensated for this critical role? People who play devil’s advocate may say, “well, many of them are given full-ride scholarships,” which is true, and that is the agreement that they sign off on. But the impact that college athletes have on their colleges is profound and lucrative, and they see none of the earnings. NCAA officials and those running athletic programs at prospective universities are pocketing most of it. It begs the question, is a full-ride scholarship enough compensation, especially when schools might now be paying students to be brand ambassadors?
I spoke to Bomani Jones, a sports journalist for ESPN, who has written extensively about this imbalance of power and who has been advocating for student-athletes to be paid for a while now.
He laid it out very succinctly. “I absolutely believe college athletes should be paid,” he said. “College athletics is a billion-dollar industry. It makes millionaires at every school. Everyone associated with the games gets paid but the players. There are adults willing to break the law to spend money to procure the services of players. Their market value is demonstrated many times over.”
Bomani also resoundingly agreed that players are the original influencers. “If they weren't, shoe companies wouldn't outfit them in their gear. If they weren't, applications wouldn't go up when a team wins a championship,” he added.
These new influencer models make it hard to ignore the disparaging ways some students are treated. And it may be time to finally ask ourselves why. If your answer is, “Because that’s what’s written in the NCAA rulebook and how things have always been done,” perhaps it’s time to amend some policies.
“No other students, for any reason, are asked to pass up money. They are a wholly unique class of students,” Bomani said. “The schools are paying these influencers because they have to. They cannot procure their services without compensation. They don't pay athletes because they don't have to, and they are the only adults in America expected to work without receiving money in return.”