Dons Basketball Navigate NIL Rights

Hilltop Club co-founder Phillip Spiegel ’94 attends a game at War Memorial Gym wearing an exclusive Hilltop Club Dons Varsity Jacket (PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS M. LEUNG/ DONS ATHLETICS)

A group of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I student-athletes sued the NCAA in 2020 over the league’s rules for student-athlete compensation in NCAA v. Alston.

In 2021, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of student-athletes, granting them the ability to make money off their name, image, and likeness (NIL).

Since the decision, many high-profile collegiate athletes have struck large endorsement deals, some reaching tens of millions of dollars. 

Though no deals of that magnitude have come to any athletes on the Hilltop, a pair of USF alumni have created a group centered around bringing NIL opportunities to the Dons’ men’s basketball program.

The Hilltop Club, founded by Matt Quinlan ‘04 and Phillip Spiegel ‘94, is an NIL fundraising collective that aims to make the men’s basketball program more attractive to high school prospects through the creation and facilitation of NIL opportunities. Though not formally affiliated with the University, they are close collaborators with the athletics department and the Athletics Compliance Office.

In addition to reaching more prospects, the club has also been helping current members of the men’s basketball team navigate and take advantage of their new NIL rights. 

For senior forward Isaiah Hawthorne, the Hilltop Club has helped him earn some extra cash and put him in contact with members of the USF community who offer career guidance beyond basketball.

“NIL has been a great addition to student-athletes like myself,” Hawthorne said. “Yes, it adds some more in our pockets like groceries which can release a little less stress financially, but most importantly it has helped me connect with people in the USF community who are very successful in their field of work. At these events, we can pick the brains of trusted people who support student-athletes and want to see us succeed.”

Hawthorne has also taken time to find resources about his NIL rights. 

“The school has done a very good job of informing us on what we can and can’t do. Our compliance office for student-athletes has had meetings with us to give us more knowledge about this new avenue so we don’t get in trouble with the NCAA.”

Through the Hilltop Club, Hawthorne and the Dons have been able to create their NIL profiles, and also make an impact in the San Francisco community. 

In August, the Dons men’s basketball team, in partnership with the Hilltop Club, attended Empower Fest. Empower Fest was organized by the San Francisco-based nonprofit Empower Me Academy, an organization that trains student leaders who then coach kids through the program.

During the event, the men’s basketball team coached kids and shared their love for basketball. Hawthorne found the experience beneficial for himself

Hawthorne said Empower Fest gives kids “a place to learn how to play the game of basketball and teach them life skills, which is very different from a typical AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] program, which in today’s society is starting to be harmful to kids and basketball.” 

AAU basketball has faced criticism for prioritizing quick wins over fundamental skill development, fostering excessive competition that can lead to player burnout, and neglecting the emphasis on education due to its high-pressure and year-round nature.

“Giving back is something I love to do, with or without the NIL opportunity, Especially helping the community that has helped me grow into the person I’ve become. There is no better feeling,” Hawthorne said.

According to the Sports Business Journal, about 17% of student-athletes at Division 1 institutions participated in NIL activities in 2022. They also reported that as of January 2023, there are 201 collectives, such as the Hilltop Club, that work closely with universities to increase interest from high school athletes and create NIL opportunities for current student-athletes. 

With the new NIL landscape developing in collegiate sports, Dons basketball and the Hilltop Club have been leading by example in how to maximize and navigate the world of NIL.

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