Solomon Hughes: Athlete Education in the NIL World

Solomon Hughes is an actor, writer, and producer who appeared in HBO's "Winning Time" as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for two seasons. In the summer of 2023, he was cast in the action-comedy film "Guns Up." He wrote and produced the short film "Sweet Santa Barbara Brown," which is currently in post-production. He is also a faculty affiliate at Duke University in the Samuel Dubois Cook Center. Prior to his acting career, he was the associate director of Stanford University's Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education Doctoral Fellowship. In 2013, he received his Ph.D. in Higher Education and Policy Studies from the University of Georgia Institute of Higher Education for his dissertation titled "Approaching Signing Day: The College Choice Process of Heavily Recruited Student-Athletes." He served as the team captain of the UC Berkeley men’s basketball team during the 2001-2002 season.


My father went to college by way of sports. He was 6 foot 8 and eventually got a scholarship to Cal State Fullerton. Later on, he received his PhD at UCLA. He was cautious about the college sports enterprise because he saw many of his black teammates have bad experiences. As a result, when I started getting recruited to play basketball, I was already carrying a fair bit of skepticism about it.

For me, I wanted to go to a school where I knew if I got injured or something happened to my athletic opportunity, I’d still enjoy the school from an academic standpoint. I was interested in biology and medicine when I was applying to colleges and I chose to attend the University of California-Berkeley. While I was there, I took note of how much money the coach was making and the coercion around what academic major student-athletes were encouraged to pursue. There was a level of stereotyping that I felt on campus and around the program.

When I think about myself, Solomon Hughes, as a college athlete, I remember someone who was really anxious, who had thought about transferring. I experienced everything: from riding the bench to becoming team captain and being in the record books. We went to the NCAA tournament and were successful in the conference. I think in the end, it was a great learning experience and I enjoyed moments, but I also would have done things differently given the chance.

When I assess the current college sports landscape, I am always quick to remind myself that the term “student-athlete” has deeply problematic historical connotations. It was a term coined by Walter Byers, the first director of the NCAA, created to provide legal protection for the NCAA against a claim for worker's compensation that was filed by the widow of a college football player who died after a college football game injury. So inherently there's this connection to the labor rights movement in the US.

I think it is a reminder that college athletics refuses to think beyond “how much money can we make off of these young people, without having to fairly compensate them?” In my mind, the NCAA has always been about the bottom line. It’s tried to distract us through various and seemingly virtuous pursuits, but the priorities have stayed the same. Now, we are seeing the NCAA constantly reacting to all of the shifts taking place. If there had been honest conversations years ago about what sports could look like within a meaningful educational setting, we’d be in a different place.

For example, when Nick Saban says he’s retiring because the sport isn’t about development anymore, I am not sure what he is referring to. Development for what? The NFL? Because we all know that Alabama has done a masterful job of hiding what the academic experiences and life outcomes look like for their football players. My perspective is that college sports has made its bed in terms of where it finds itself today. And to be clear, I’m not judging the students for the decisions they’re making now in the NIL world. They are mimicking what the adults have been doing all along.

I think that the pursuit of NIL sponsorships and business ventures isn’t entirely void of learning and growth opportunities for individuals. But what used to be a process of choosing colleges and courses based on general education requirements and major requirements has turned into a process where students are choosing courses solely based on what keeps them eligible.

The academic experience solely exists to support the athletic one, which is an issue. What I have a real problem with is the total reactionary nature of the NCAA today. Institutions are telling their students that if they want any part of the financial benefit that’s now allowed, they have to go outside of the institution to find it. They are now students, athletes, and essentially working one or more jobs. What there should be is a route within an institution for athletes to receive some sort of academic credit for these outside pursuits.

Take Caitlin Clark as an example. She was the most important person at the University of Iowa over the last two years. We all saw and experienced her performances in the Big 10 and NCAA Tournaments, and the fact that she receives basically zero compensation for the money she brought to the school is simply not right. The universities and the NCAA know this, but ultimately it goes back to the history of the institution and its priority to their bottom line.

I don’t feel optimistic. I am of the belief that you can judge an institution by how the most vulnerable population is faring - and the most vulnerable population has always lost out. The world of NIL is simply advancing a have and have-not world.