He’s the Ideal College Athlete. So Why Did He Quit?

He’s the Ideal College Athlete. So Why Did He Quit?
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He’s the Ideal College Athlete. So Why Did He Quit?

He’s the Ideal College Athlete. So Why Did He Quit?

There has never been another college athlete like Hunter Woodhall.

At the University of Arkansas, he achieved all-American sprinter status for a top track team. Woodhall, 22, who grew up in a small town in Utah, achieved this as a double amputee. When he was a baby, doctors surgically removed his lower legs, just below the knees. They told his parents he would never walk.

Instead, wearing sleek prosthetic blades, he became an athlete who could manage while running neck and neck with some of the fastest runners in the world. In 2017, he earned an NCAA Division I scholarship, becoming the first double amputee to do so. In March 2020, he anchored the Arkansas 4×400-meter relay team to a victory that saw the Razorbacks claim the tag team title at the Southeastern Conference indoor championships. At the Tokyo Paralympic Games this summer, he will be the frontrunner to win gold in the 400 meters.

Not too bad a story. Even Ellen DeGeneres noticed it and put it on her TV show.

We’re heading into the end of March Madness, where the NCAA is running self-promotional ads throughout its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments through the organization’s $ 8.8 billion multi-year broadcast deal. . Such advertisements tout the character of its athletes, a useful trick to appeasing criticisms aimed at varsity sport for taking advantage of what is essentially an unpaid workforce.

Hunter Woodhall’s story of perseverance would make great television.

But the NCAA can’t rely on Woodhall. Why? In January, frustrated by the inability of the organization to keep up with the times, he stopped running in college and turned professional. He had found himself in a position where he no longer needed college sports like they needed him.

The NCAA must prepare for a powerful audience that holds the key to its future. On Wednesday, the nine Supreme Court justices will hear arguments in a case to determine whether the NCAA violates antitrust law by narrowly limiting the benefits its sports stars can receive from schools.

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After winning a silver and bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, Woodhall began turning his fame into a huge Instagram account and was part of a bold new wave of varsity athletes who are opening almost every aspects of their social media life – the good, the bad, and the utterly wacky. Their approach is very different from the sanitized imagery exported to the world via the very glossy NCAA commercials.

“I was just experimenting and having fun and slowly cultivating it at first,” Woodhall told me recently, speaking of a newly purchased house near the college campus in Fayetteville, Ark. “But then it all kind of took off.”

Looking at Woodhall’s posts, you can see why he’s causing a stir. He is tall, handsome, and full of endearing, light energy. He speaks with his heart about overcoming the challenge of his disability, always with self-deprecating humor.

In a TikTok video viewed nearly six million times, Woodhall quickly explains his life story, starting with amputations 11 months after his birth. “I swear everyone in the comments is saying my legs were bitten by a shark, or that I was hit by about 17 buses,” he says, looking at the camera with a glint in his eyes. “So here’s my real story. “

Woodhall and his girlfriend, Tara Davis, a University of Texas track star, have their own YouTube channel, where viewers can follow the couple throughout their long-distance relationship.

Woodhall has over 3.1 million social media followers across various platforms. These numbers allow him to generate significant income from sponsored posts and pay on social media, perhaps up to $ 800,000 a year, according to an estimate from Opendorse, a social media consulting firm that follows the brand value of athletes and advises. on how to use online technology as a boost.

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The NCAA, of course, has long had strict restrictions prohibiting its competitors from making money from their fame. The institution had promised to relax those rules – no doubt because it was pushed into a corner by looming legal battles, by the many states that passed laws demanding such a change, and by threats from several members of the government. Congress to control the power of the NCAA even more vigorously. But the NCAA backed down in January, saying it had to postpone loosening its grip until a later date.

Woodhall had seen enough.

“I was so sick of waiting, sick of their hypocrisy,” he told me about his decision to go pro when he had one year of eligibility left. “It wasn’t worth staying to chase a national title so they could use my name and my story to promote themselves. I just have had enough.

Woodhall will spend his time training for the Paralympic Games while reaping the rewards of being an internet influencer, paid in full. He said he made around $ 7,500 per post and it was not difficult to produce 10 each month.

Leverage the income paid by social media sites to attract viewers, the windfall of the sports equipment sponsorship deals he is about to sign, and the income of a clothing company he co-owns , and he seems to be doing pretty well without running under the ominous eye of the NCAA

Woodhall’s internet-based income may well be the future of college sports.

“Athletes like Hunter are bona fide celebrities for the TikTok and YouTube generation,” said Blake Lawrence, former Nebraska linebacker who is now the general manager of Opendorse. “People over 30 may not realize it, but for the generation raised on these social media platforms, these athletes, they are the ones who carry the weight.”

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One of the arguments against allowing college kids to make money with their fame is that popular male players in the biggest sports – soccer and basketball – will reap most of the benefits. But of the 30 most followed college athletes on social media, just over half are from unpaid sports like track and field, tennis and wrestling, Lawrence said. And many are women.

For now, unless there are general rule changes that affect all college sports, these competitors are leaving a lot of money on the table waiting to see if anything changes.

So far, those who control college sports have been able to tame player unionization campaigns and any other form of mass athlete protest.

But increasingly, social media is giving college athletes the freedom to more comfortably resist the NCAA and make the kinds of demands that any long-sterilized workforce has come to expect. The NCAA tournaments were the prime time for their turmoil.

Oregon center Sedona Prince used a social media video to shame the NCAA for improving woefully inadequate training facilities for women’s tournament teams. Rutgers goalkeeper Geo Baker said his team’s players and Clemson have talked about staging a protest by delaying their first-round tournament match as part of a player-led budding. #PropertyNotNCAA movement.

But they did not protest, in part because they feared negative reactions. Currently, college athletes don’t feel secure enough to take such a daring stance. They don’t have the power.

How long will this be the case?

Not long, Woodhall predicts. “The power will change,” he said, as athletes make greater use of platforms such as social media to increase not only their influence, but also their bank accounts.

“Times are changing,” he added, “whether the NCAA likes it or not.”

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