The Kournikoving of College Sports and Its Discontents
Why the Cavinder twins terrify the NCAA
When I was told that two embattled college basketball players “hit back'“ at the NCAA, I wanted to see what such an act of defiance meant. What I found was confusing, kind of silly, easy to dismiss, and, upon reflection, a fascinating challenge to established powers.
Here, you might see twins doing a silly half-dance, set to the end of a Chris Brown song from 2011. That was my first read on the clip anyway.
I don’t really understand TikTok aesthetics, so questions like “Why does the clip sort of arbitrarily stop?” and “Why is this happening in a bathroom?” will be left to the experts. As for the “BFFR NCAA” caption, no less an authority than the Harvard Crimson tells us that “BFFR” means “Be fucking for real.”
Okay so this reads sort of like a dance tantrum. Or a half a dance tantrum. “Gee, the NCAA must be terrified,” I thought after watching. Then I read the Twitter caption:
dear ncaa, scared that female athletes have value? let’s hoop tho
“Oh,” I reconsidered. “The NCAA must be terrified.” And here’s why.
The NCAA Strikes Back
If you’re like me, you didn’t know much about “Cavinder Twins” Haley and Hanna until they became the first athletes punished for NCAA infractions within the name, image, and likeness (NIL) framework. Or more precisely, their college, the University of Miami, was punished, on account of how they were recruited, while the twins were left alone. Before this ruling, I was vaguely aware that the twins were TikTok famous, and interested in NCAA motivations when I read about the following:
While in the transfer portal, Haley and Hanna, as well as their parents, had dinner with prominent Hurricanes booster John Ruiz at his Miami home on April 13, 2022. Later that night, Ruiz posted a photo to Twitter that showed the group standing in front of his home — and according to the report, it sparked the NCAA’s investigation that began in May.
The ruling was a surprise to many because NIL, which kicked off in summer of 2021 after the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA could not prevent certain forms of payment to college athletes, appeared to be a free-for-all. Suddenly, here was the NCAA swooping in to punish a school over the presence of a booster at a dinner, in a sport that had just been formally handed over to the winds of chaos.
The NCAA ruling isn’t just perplexingly arbitrary; it’s a potential litigation risk for the organization. Quoting Michael McCann, Sportico’s legal expert:
In sanctioning Miami, the NCAA noted it could disassociate a booster over improper NIL conduct. One problem: the booster could then sue NCAA under antitrust law, violation of a state NIL statute, tortious interference and suppressing 1st Amendment rights.
So the question then is, why would the NCAA go through all the trouble to do this? Why target women’s basketball players with the very first NIL punishment?
The common anti-NCAA assessment of this is some variation on how the associate body is antiquated and stupid and destined for an early demise. Okay, fair enough, perhaps. The NCAA representatives sure play the role of hidebound myopic bureaucrat. Their party line, as told by Committee on Infractions officials to Athletic reporter Nicole Auerbach, is that this Miami targeting is all dispassionate rules enforcement to ensure well, I’m not sure exactly.
But I think the decision happened for an understandable reason, misguided though it may be, and the Haley Cavinder tweet is just over that target: “dear ncaa, scared that female athletes have value?”
The answer, in all likelihood, is “yes.” Though, it’s not that the NCAA is scared that female athletes have value. Instead, the NCAA is likely worried about why those athletes have value.
A New Era
The NIL era is a test of whether an unjust system can be blown apart and improved as a cultural product for its scrambling. Ultimately the demolition had to happen, nostalgia be damned. College sports partisans may have been loath to admit it, but, yes, it was unfair to deprive stars of earnings just because “amateurism” made for good marketing. At the same time, I can respect that college sports is a massive institution, built up over decades, that many people derive joy and connection from. Additionally, I can understand that unfairness to stars happened within a system that enriched the lives of many athletes, people who weren’t being exploited when they had the best times of their lives in front of cheering crowds. In shaking things up, you can imperil an institution that’s benefitted legions, since it rests atop a veritable Jenga structure of noble lies.
That’s a broader subject than the one we’re focused on today, though. This is about women’s college sports, a sphere that some feared would wholly lack for NIL dollars. Well, it seems some women’s athletes are making a small fortune.
Cue this Sports Illustrated list of the top women’s NIL earners. Well, it’s less an informational list than an excuse for SI to show you alluring photos of the athletes, but that’s kind of the point here. At the moment, all are earning millions from their endorsements (Bueckers is last listed as a bit under seven figures, but a new update would almost certainly get her there):
The NIL top five:
Olivia Dunne, LSU gymnastics
Suni Lee, Auburn gymnastics
Paige Bueckers, UConn basketball
Haley and Hanna Cavinder, Miami basketball
SI lists Haley and Hanna as a unit, but they rake in so much that each would easily make the top 5 as individuals. I should note that Paige Bueckers would theoretically be worthy of this list on basketball merit alone, given that she was America’s top recruit, but it’s notable that a season scuttled due to her ACL tear hasn’t knocked Bueckers off her earnings ranking. Overall, of the top 5 in women’s collegiate earnings, four of the athletes are some variation of blonde, and yes the list skews attractive.
Small-sample-size alert, but there are implications here, implications oh-so-carefully broached in Kurt Streeter’s New York Times article, titled, “New Endorsements for College Athletes Resurface an Old Concern: Sex Sells.” Such a fraught topic gets the most wordy subhead imaginable, lest the NYT risk putting a foot wrong here. So after the title, it reads:
Female college athletes are making millions thanks to their large social media followings. But some who have fought for equity in women’s sports worry that their brand building is regressive.
That’s not the only concern, apparently. From Streeter:
Race cannot be ignored as part of the dynamic. A majority of the most successful female moneymakers are white. Sexual orientation can’t be ignored, either. Few of the top earners openly identify as gay, and many post suggestive images of themselves that seem to cater to the male gaze.
Like or hate the demographic outcomes (we at HoS are neutral on such matters), there’s no conspiracy here. This is the free market, the one many high minded sports writers demanded that the college men have access to in the interest of fairness. This same set just didn’t anticipate free market results on the women’s side that they’d regard as unfair. Women’s sports, from the perspective of the prestige sports writer, was about a greater quest for equality that managed to highlight marginalized groups. Now, all of a sudden, it’s about….hot blondes getting paid?
Men have their general preferences, preferences that are reflected in the dating market, and now, apparently, the NIL market. It’s a touchy subject, but certain groups do better on the dating apps than other groups. Short guys can attest that life isn’t exactly fair in this space.
As observed in dating site statistics and also in common sense noticing, a large cohort of men show more interest in a slender straight-presenting blonde than in some other sorts of women. These men also show more interest in women who appear available to the intentions of guys. These average revealed preferences are uncomfortable for some to deal with, and here comes the NIL revolution, making it all so salient, putting a number to what’s been suspected.
NIL legalized a market that was always there, one sports media barely considered while hyperfocusing on what this revolution meant for big-time college football. Men, who comprise not just the majority of sports fans overall but the majority of sports fans who watch women’s sports, had the collective capacity to upend the incentive structure of collegiate female athletics. We just didn’t see it because the status quo had NCAA women’s sports high on prestige (from winning competitions) but low on monetary compensation (scholarships). Now that compensation is allowed, the system finds itself scrambling to reckon with what gets rewarded.
It turns out that, for female college athletes, being attractive is more in commercial demand than being the best. When I was going to Cal, pole vaulter Allison Stokke broke the Internet off of one photo. Few who heard of Stokke knew anything about her as a competitor, and if NIL had existed back then, it really wouldn’t have mattered much. She’d be a millionaire, whether ranked as the Number 1 or Number 7,000 vaulter in the country.
Many young men are desperate for women, sometimes in a parasocial way. This desperation is on a visceral level that I’m not sure many women can really fathom, even if they experience the result of it. To cite a massive study on dating app communication between millions of heterosexual users, women get three times the interactions men do. Now this is what that demand gap looks like when scaled up to the heights of a mob yearning for LSU’s Olivia Dunne.
Whatever we call what’s in that clip, the NCAA wants no part of it. Nor does the NCAA want to be involved in headlines like, “Olivia Dunne teams up with golf influencer and ‘newest recruit’ Katie Sigmond for ‘censored’ LSU locker room snaps”. These bureaucrats see themselves as societal stewards, not new age pimps.
The Regina George Effect
Now here’s an aspect that I don’t think the sports media quite grasps yet as it moves towards this building story. I know a little something about it due to my minor investment in a friend’s apparel company. I won’t mention the company here in this potentially controversial post, but you regular podcast listeners might well get what I’m referring to.
So my friend is attempting to make his product go viral among young athlete influencers, and he’s attempting to use NIL to his advantage. Companies that operate this way are looking at these college, and yes, high school kids through the lens of “ROI,” and one factor that can’t be dismissed is the following: Many girls want to buy what the popular girl is wearing and that girl tends to be good-looking.
Meaning that, as much as we can expound on the “male gaze” and whether these young women’s athletes are trapped by it, the female gaze is a powerful consideration here as well. How do you make a style go viral at a high school? You give it to Regina George and her Plastics.
My friend’s product is performance-based, so actual athletic ranking remains a major factor, but not every company shares the same playbook. I don’t think, say, Champs Sports, is showing you the Cavinder twins’ TikToks because one of the twins averaged 19.8 points last season in Fresno. I mean, that track record helped get them in the door, but now, what matters most to Champs is that the twins look like energetic models. Haley Cavinder is currently averaging only 12.8 points, which seems like a tiny footnote amid all this burgeoning fame.
It’s difficult to find an influencer who moves units, let alone one that’ll appeal to both men and women. Even Beyonce’s Adidas brand is tanking. The Cavinders and athletes like them present the vanishingly rare possibility of capturing youth market share across the board. No wonder the money is flowing fast.
Can the Kournikoving be stopped? Should it?
Millennials and Gen Xers alike remember Anna Kournikova, the beautiful Russian tennis player whose fame was based far more on her sultry looks than on her actual tennis career. She of course provoked some measure of resentment, mockery and fear about what this all meant for women’s tennis.
In the end, Kournikova wasn’t a harbinger of much. There would be other attractive women’s tennis players, but fame and accomplishment were pretty positively correlated as time went on. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is that women’s tennis is a serious sport, with a “best of three” structure that offers a nice change of pace from lengthy male matches. Having had to differentiate itself in a crowded field of potential sports options, women’s tennis emerged as both unique and traditional. That combination has stood the test of time.
In potential contrast, women’s college sports has been subsidized by a half-century of Title IX, which mandates that universities maintain women’s sports teams. Some vigorously argue for Title IX’s importance and some believe it outdated in an era where females outnumber males in universities. Whatever you think, it’s pretty inarguable to say that the law has insulated women’s sports from market forces.
Now those market forces are here, and they’re placing the NCAA in a highly uncomfortable position. In theory, liberalizing rules was good because it made people free to make their own choices. That’s what the Cavinder twins appear to believe.
In practice, though, these long-subsidized sports appear powerless to prevent being overrun by the fantasies of young men and the dollars attached to such wanting. Does the NCAA want to be a middleman in the selling of sex? How will nervous bureaucrats grapple with a reality where paler athletes make megabucks and the previously foregrounded minority athletes often get nothing?
Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer, legendary women’s basketball coach, told the New York Times of the NIL revolution, “This is a step back.” From the perspective of women like VanDerveer, Olivia Dunne isn’t carrying the torch of past generations. Dunne, whose salary appears to have eclipsed VanDerveer’s, went on TikTok, posed in a leotard and warned the veteran coach, via lip sync, to watch her mouth. Dunne and the Cavinders might not be carrying a torch, but they’re young, rich and currently on fire. The old constraints just can’t harness these new stars as they commodify the oldest of prerogatives.