FAYETTEVILLE — In the wild, wild west of today’s NIL world, Arkansas is on the forefront of a unique way for not only athletes to benefit from the new legislation — but also the community in which they live and play.
Created by Bryan and Mandy Hunt, the heirs of Arkansas-based J.B. Hunt, the Athlete Advocate Consortium (AAC) has taken another step into the frontier by signing the entire Arkansas men’s basketball team to a name, image and likeness deal for the 2022-23 season.
“As we were evaluating the applicants for this year’s program, we determined this has the potential to be an exceptional year for Arkansas basketball,” Bryan Hunt said in a statement. “Our goal is to utilize the excitement and the following these star athletes have to help drive awareness of area non-profits.”
After dipping its toes in the NIL waters last year by signing JD Notae to a deal, the AAC dove in head-first this year with Monday’s announcement about the team-wide agreement, in addition to individual deals with Arizona State transfer Jalen Graham and blue-chip freshman Jordan Walsh.
What makes these NIL deals unique, though, is that the Hunts aren’t trying to market their Fortune 500 company or create a “pay-to-play” slush fund for recruits. The intent of the AAC is to pair the athletes with local non-profit organizations, which they then help raise money for through promotions and other activities.
The Arkansas basketball team is partnered with the Children’s Safety Center, which helps victims of child abuse, while Walsh is partnered with the Jones Center and Graham is taking the baton from Notae by helping the Samaritan Community Center.
Usually the center of attention and keen to be visible to fans, Arkansas basketball coach Eric Musselman took on a different role during Monday’s ceremony at JJ’s Live in Fayetteville. He was in attendance, but watched from the shadows like a proud father as his players signed on with the AAC.
NCAA rules limit what he’s allowed to say pertaining to NIL deals, but the Musselman did briefly meet with the media to discuss the significance of Monday’s announcement.
“I just think it’s great for our players to be able to contribute back to the community,” Musselman said. “I think there’s a lot of life lessons that these guys can carry on not just this year, from what they’re learning from AAC, but all the way into the rest of their lives. Really cool, really impactful for a lot of different people.”
It should be noted that this isn’t “volunteering” in the traditional sense, as these players are being compensated for their charitable work, but rather a positive spin on the NIL deals that routinely draw negative headlines in the media and criticism from fans.
Players like Walsh, a five-star prospect who could have gone anywhere in the country and likely received large NIL payments, this is a way to also give back to the community in the process — a fact not lost on the Razorbacks.
“This is an amazing opportunity for us to give back to the community and I’m proud to be part of this organization, the AAC,” Razorback freshman Derrian Ford said. “I just want to enjoy the moment because I know chances like this don’t happen for everybody.”
JD Notae Gets the Ball Rolling
A phrase commonly thrown out by those delving into the economical sides of these deals is “return on investment” — or ROI.
If a car dealership signs Player A to a $20,000 NIL deal to appear in commercials or post about their business, does that result in the dealership selling more than $20,000 worth of cars more than it otherwise would have? If the answer is yes, the deal often makes sense from a business perspective.
If the answer is no, though, it raises questions about the intent of the deal. The car dealership may be fine with losing money, but in that case, it was essentially a “pay-for-play” agreement with Player A, which wasn’t the spirit of the NIL legislation and is what many coaches and fans have been vocal about in their criticisms.
However, for the AAC, the ROI is a moot point because the Hunts aren’t even pretending to want to make money themselves. Their sole intent is to raise money for non-profit organizations, which they were successful in doing this past winter and spring.
While leading the Razorbacks to another Elite Eight and earning third-team AP All-America honors in his final season as a Razorback in 2021-22, JD Notae also partnered with the AAC and, through food drives, donations, auctions for memorabilia and other activities, helped raise more than $50,000 for the Samaritan Community Center.
“I didn’t even have that much money, so I couldn’t imagine trying to raise that much money,” Notae told Best of Arkansas Sports. “It was special to see that.”
During Monday’s ceremony, the Hunts shared with the crowd that they met with Notae over dinner to discuss the AAC and their vision for the program. When they told him that one of the Samaritan Center’s primary missions is to provide kids and families in need, he was all in.
For a guy who had no fear of taking a shot from anywhere on the court in front of 20,000 screaming fans, it was a very different role for Notae, but that ultimately made the experience that much more enriching.
“I was kind of nervous, trying to take on something different, get outside of my comfort zone,” Notae said. “But at the end of the day, when I started doing the things I was doing, I felt comfortable doing it and I felt blessed to be able to do it. It was very special, honestly.”
As the AAC’s first representative, Notae also set forth an example for future Razorbacks to follow that they otherwise might not have known was possible.
“I did see what JD did last year (and) it inspired me,” Ford said. “It let you know that you want to do more than just basketball. You want to help the community also. Seeing him do that, it just gave me motivation to try to anything possible, whether it was the AAC or another organization. Just to help the community is one of the big things I wanted to do other than basketball.”
AAC Signs Pair of Razorbacks to Individual Deals
In addition to the entire Arkansas basketball team partnering with the Children’s Safety Center, a couple of players also signed individual deals.
Jordan Walsh, one of the Razorbacks’ three McDonald’s All-Americans, has been paired with the Jones Center in Springdale. The 220,000-square foot facility is the largest resource for low- or no-cost accessibility to youth and family recreation in the area.
The Jones Center has basketball courts, an indoor swimming pool, a fitness center and one of only two indoor ice arenas in the state — the latter of which seemed to intrigue Walsh the most, even though he’s never played hockey.
“I’m going to try (to play) — after the season’s over,” Walsh told Best of Arkansas Sports, while smiling from ear to ear. “Coach Muss won’t let me do it, but after the season, I’m for sure going to try.”
Known for his insane athleticism and high-flying antics on the basketball court, Walsh could be seen as a player using Arkansas as a one-year training ground until the NBA comes calling next summer with a much larger payday.
Instead, he’s using his time in Fayetteville — however short it may be — to make a positive impact in the Northwest Arkansas community.
“Giving back to the community and doing this for the community is way bigger than basketball,” Walsh said. “Those things are the things I feel build a human being, with morals and stuff like that. These small things you do for the community and for other people can help build you for the future and that’s what I love about it and that’s what I want to do.”
The other individual deal involved Jalen Graham, the All-Pac-12 transfer from Arizona State, partnering with the Samaritan Community Center.
J.D. Notae’s Final Assist for the Razorbacks
It’s the same non-profit organization Notae worked with last year and helped raise enough money to build a facility in Rogers to go along with the one in Springdale. He passed down his knowledge of the experience to at least one player on the current team.
“I talked to him and he told me some things,” Graham told Best of Arkansas Sports. “I’m going to try to do it better. That’s big shoes to fill, coming behind JD Notae, but I’m going to try my hardest.”
Despite being what some may think of as a transfer portal “mercenary” — a standout player leaving a bad team to join a good one, likely for just one year — and having never been to Arkansas before an official visit this offseason, Graham is also using his short stay in Fayetteville to give back.
It also helps that partnering with an organization like the Samaritan Center, which feeds families in need, hits close to home for the 6-foot-9 forward.
“Me and the Hunts talked about it and felt like it’d be a good fit for me, coming from where I came from back home,” Graham said. “It inspired me just seeing my mom try her hardest and still have struggles. I feel like I kind of know what some of these kids are going through. I can help them and prepare them and talk to them about some of this stuff. I’m happy to do that.”
Of course, having multiple organizations to work with on top of the usual duties of a student-athlete, such as practicing and studying, won’t be easy for Walsh and Graham, but they’re up for the challenge because they know it’s a good cause.
“It’s something that’s going to make me want to grind for it, for sure, and do whatever it takes to help support both places,” Walsh said. “I’m excited to do it with the help of my team, with the help of the Hunts. I feel like it’s a task that can be completed, for sure.”
The “Gold Standard” of NIL
Although the “collectives” being formed across the country that essentially pay athletes for little-to-no work draw most of the ire of traditional college football fans, and therefore get the most attention, Arkansas is not alone in the concept of using NIL to benefit the community.
Around the same time as the AAC was getting off the ground, but before it was publicly announced in January, Horns with Heart was created to support Texas student-athletes by using their name, image and likeness to support charitable causes. It drew headlines for its program that pays every offensive lineman $50,000 per year, dubbed The Pancake Factory.
This summer, Oklahoma State launched a Pokes with a Purpose organization that has a similar mission.
However, AAC consultant Chris Wyrick, who served as the emcee of Monday’s event, told the crowd that he recently got a call from someone at Purdue. The Boilermakers are looking to start their own program and stumbled across the AAC in their research.
After chatting about the organization, Wyrick asked the person why they called him and why they were interested in the AAC specifically, to which she responded it was because they felt it was the “gold standard in the NIL space.”
That is a strong compliment and one the AAC and those involved can be proud of, especially considering the organization is less than a year old.
“It’s just a blessing to see it growing,” Notae said. “I was the first person to do it, so we kind of didn’t know where to start, but we had a plan. We executed that plan, we raised a lot of money and we did a lot of different things for the community.”
Learn more about the organizations Arkansas is partnering with through the AAC:
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