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While thousands of NCAA athletes are looking forward to leveraging their social media power as early as 2021, there is one group of high-profile athletes who will be prohibited from participating at all in monetizing their names, images and likenesses.
The United States Service Academies, in an official government memorandum, have been told that all athletes are prohibited from using their right to publicity as a college athlete because they are considered to be employees. The Academies and conferences are:
· United States Naval Academy (USNA)-Patriot League, Division I
· United States Military Academy (USMA)-Patriot League, Division I
· United States Air Force Academy (USAFA)-Mountain West, Division I
· United States Coast Guard Academy (USCGA)-NEWMAC, Division III
· United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA)-Skyline, Division III
Selected cadets receive an appointment to the designated academy and have their tuition, fees, room and board paid for by the United States Government. As such, they are treated as employees. There are specific federal laws that govern their behaviors as active duty servicemembers, called the “Use of Public Office for Private Gain”.
· § 2635.702 Use of public office for private gain.
“An employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity, including nonprofit organizations of which the employee is an officer or member, and persons with whom the employee has or seeks employment or business relations. The specific prohibitions set forth in paragraphs (a) through (d) of this section apply this general standard, but are not intended to be exclusive or to limit the application of this section.
· Endorsements. An employee shall not use or permit the use of his Government position or title or any authority associated with his public office to endorse any product, service or enterprise except:
(1) In furtherance of statutory authority to promote products, services or enterprises; or
(2) As a result of documentation of compliance with agency requirements or standards or as the result of recognition for achievement given under an agency program of recognition for accomplishment in support of the agency’s mission.”
Despite these clear directives, cadets have posted and gained substantial followings when talking about their daily lives and opinions. And there is an audience for this content, as many high school age viewers comment on the posts asking for more and more information and tips as to how to get into the Academies. Viewed through this lens, these athletes would be great sponsorship partners.
Zoe Iwu, a freshman track athlete at the Air Force Academy, posted a video which includes a portion of her daily track practice. Called A day in the life of a freshman at the Air Force Academy, it has received 27,000 views since August 2020. The comments section is filled with folks envious of her opportunity to be chosen for the appointment.
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Cambria Lennee, another Falcon athlete, posted a video called “a day in the life of a cadet”; she covers the challenges and social pressures she faces as a volleyball player and cadet, including getting grief for missing mandatory “Sammies” (Saturday morning dorm room inspections) because she is traveling to an away match.
While some may believe these regulations should apply only to officers, others strongly disagree. In an online article written for the Modern War Institute at West Point, author Matthew Fitgerald writes “Some have suggested that servicemembers do not run afoul of ethics rules so long as they avoid endorsing products in uniform. Although applying the rule only in instances when a military uniform is worn would be convenient for influencers, it plainly misreads the rule. Any use of public office for private gain is prohibited. At a minimum, this includes leveraging one’s name, image, and likeness as a servicemember, or any unique access that federal employment provides, in exchange for personal financial gain from non-federal entities. This does not mean that servicemembers cannot profit from telling their military story, it merely limits them from doing so while still on active duty.”
In researching this story, there are thousands of videos and sites describing life as a cadet at these prestigious institutions. Some believe the enforcement of these regulations have been applied inconsistently to date. Regardless, these college athletes will not be permitted to monetize their rights to publicity, no matter what any state legislation permits-the Fed has already said no.
Karen Weaver is a member of the Graduate Faculty in the Higher Education Division at the University of Pennsylvania.
She is an expert on college sports as they intersect