remember that you’re more than an athlete (long)

On August 1, 2016, I learned that it’s not just athletes who aren’t prepared to build a brand—it’s the people surrounding them. Even more alarming was the discovery that many of those people are actually against the idea of athletes building personal brands.

On that summer’s day, the NCAA implemented a new rule in college athletics that, for the first time, allowed university coaches to publicly engage with (like, retweet, favorite, and share) the social media posts of the high school athletes that they were recruiting. The next twenty-four hours were a bit of a free-for-all as coaches began retweeting and liking in droves. ESPN put together a chart representing the number of times Southeastern Conference (SEC) football coaches had retweeted potential recruits’ posts after one day of the new rule. Butch Jones, head coach of the University of Tennessee, had done so 111 times, more than any other coach in the conference. Both the social media and recruiting games had officially changed.

I looked at the new rule along with those numbers and immediately saw the exposure opportunity suddenly available to the high school athlete. In response, I tweeted a photo of the ESPN chart along with the following:

 

[TWEET] Real winners of new recruiting rule are HS [high school] athlete brands. Social exposure #AthletesAreBrandsToo

 

Boy, did that rub some people the wrong way. That night I got into my first ever Twitter fight.

The response that sparked the debate came from an individual who claimed in his Twitter profile to actually work for one of the major recruiting sites. I don’t think he liked what I had to say.

 

[TWEET] I’ve legit seen some awful tweets since I got into this game but, my God, is this one of the worst of the bunch.

 

He continued:

 

[TWEET] And people have criticized hoops recruiting for years, now we’re promoting “HS athlete brands”…what a joke.

 

I started to get a tad disturbed by this gentleman’s naivety. But I kept my cool on Twitter, because, you know, the brand. I prodded a bit:

 

[TWEET] Appreciate the passion—why is it bad for athletes to improve their brand? Important for everyone, no?

 

I nudged a couple more times:

 

[TWEET] More successful young men/women are at building a pers brand, more likely they are to succeed post athletics. Why is that bad?

[TWEET] Very few of these athletes will make it to the professional levels, even then, there are no guarantees. Need to prep for post sport career.

 

That’s when some others started to chime in. Apparently, I was (and maybe still am, for these people) the worst:

 

[TWEET] @JeremyDarlow Fan of yours typically, but this is off-base. How (actually; not theoretically) does one RT [retweet] help w/ post-sport career?

 

At this point my hair was standing on end (more than usual) from the shock. How could people be so oblivious to personal branding and, in this case, the power of social media?

To answer that last tweeter’s question, here’s why it matters. One single retweet from an SEC football coach can provide a young man with additional exposure to:

 

  • Football coaches and programs that follow the coach
  • Football media that follow the coach
  • Football influencers that follow the coach
  • Football fans that follow the coach

 

Furthermore, coaches are themselves influencers who have the ability to validate an athlete’s skill set with a single public endorsement—which a retweet absolutely is. So if we’re keeping score, that “one RT” can drive brand awareness amongst coaches, football programs, media, and fans across the country. That “one RT” also helps grow an athlete’s number of followers, which can only help improve his chances at a scholarship, not to mention aid in positioning him as an influencer himself.

Finally, an athlete that a head coach at an SEC program deems worthy enough to retweet is more than likely being recruited by several other prominent head coaches—all of whom will see their competition publicly engaging with the young man. And, as we now know, retweets lead to more retweets.

Meanwhile, my original detractor, the one that worked for the recruiting service? Yeah, he wasn’t having it:

 

[TWEET] @JeremyDarlow Dude, stop.

 

Then came this response from, according to his Twitter profile, an “NBA Draft Analyst”:

 

[TWEET] @JeremyDarlow No, that’s how you end up with college athletes, potential pros, worrying about wrong things

 

To which I replied:

[TWEET] When we consider our extracurricular activities and GPA in high school to get academic schollies, that’s brand mkt

 

We’d be negligent if we didn’t encourage athletes to build their brands in the same way we encourage other students to build theirs for entrance to college and “the real world.” Let’s be honest: most high school students don’t participate in extracurricular activities for love of debate or French or the saxophone (and a comparative hatred of free time spent watching TV and hanging out with friends). It’s about looking good on a college application—in other words, the brand.

What baffles me is that these so-called overachievers are encouraged to build a well-rounded body of work that stands out amongst the competition, yet when it comes to the six-foot-five high school football player with a rocket for an arm, we encourage “focus.” Everything else is suddenly considered a distraction. What’s the difference? Why do we treat athletes different from nonathlete students?

I followed up on Twitter with this:

 

[TWEET] Just because a young man/woman is an athlete, doesn’t stop the need for a brand. Need to prepare everyone for post athletics.

 

Our instigator friend appeared to have had enough:

 

[TWEET] @JeremyDarlow I’m done with you, man. You’re going to do your thing regardless, we can agree to disagree.

Needless to say, I don’t expect this individual to attend any of my book signings.

For the athletes reading this, know that there will always be those who refuse to see a world beyond athletics, people who will tell you to put all your eggs in one basket.

But athletes who fail to reach the professional ranks do so not because they spent too much time building a resume or personal brand. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. According to the NCAA, student-athletes graduate at a higher rate than the general student body. Focus is not the problem. Athletes fail to reach the professional ranks because it’s hard!

If less than 2 percent of NCAA athletes go on to play professional sports, how can we as a society not properly prepare them, beginning in high school, for a life post-sport? How can we not encourage these individuals to start building a brand while they have influence? This isn’t about taking time away from athletics and skill development on the field or golf course. This is about building a brand armed with a resume relevant to the world that exists off it.

So that’s what I’m going to do: teach you how to position your personal brand in a way that differentiates you from the competition and increases your chances of post-athletics success.