Autograph signing the latest NIL opportunity for Ohio State football players

Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch

Zach Harrison, a budding star defensive end at Ohio State, was sitting behind a table for an autograph signing at an Easton store on Sunday afternoon when he was approached by Buckeyes athletic director Gene Smith.

Dozens of fans had whizzed by Harrison and two other teammates, defensive tackle Haskell Garrett and linebacker Teradja Mitchell, for the previous hour at Conrads College Gifts. They paid $25 for a signature or as much as $65 for all three.

Ohio State Buckeyes defensive starters, from left, Zach Harrison, Haskell Garrett, and Teradja Mitchell  sit down for their first-ever autograph session at Conrads College Gifts at Easton. Current players had for decades been forbidden to participate in such autograph sessions, but as of July 1 they are allowed to make money off their name, image or likeness.

The scene led to some easy banter as Smith reached the front of the line.

“I know you’re ready to buy something,” Harrison cracked.

Smith chuckled.

“I can’t afford you guys!” he shot back.

Name, image, likeness rules to bring more public appearances by college athletes

Their presence offered the latest window into the new era in college sports that allows athletes to make money from the use of their name, image and likeness. On an afternoon three days before the start of Ohio State’s preseason camp, the players combined signed more than 200 autographs as part of an event arranged by their new management agency.

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The prevalence of public appearances in Columbus and across the country is likely to expand as college athletes increasingly take advantage of NIL ventures.

With NCAA restrictions on payments in place for decades, stores such as Conrads were limited to inviting former players for signings or meet-and-greets. Current players were off-limits until rules changes took effect on July 1.

None of the Buckeyes had grand spending plans for their extra cash. They were all being pretty cautious.

“I’m being smart with the money,” Mitchell said. “I’m not going to spend any of it until I figure out how taxes work. I'm still learning, so I’m laying low.”

Garrett, conscious of the financial problems some athletes face in retirement, retained a financial advisor to help him invest his money.    

“There's the narrative athletes go broke two to three years after they're done with their profession,” he said.

He further predicted opportunities from NIL will provide a better financial education for future generations of players.

“I don't think you're really taught that in college,” Garrett said, “because there's so much that you put in with football and school. Those are the only two things you think about.”

If players were ever responsible for money management, it was with cost of attendance stipends.

But those were given to help assist with living expenses, and Garrett considers them ineffective lessons. They spent the money rather than save it.

“When you get that stipend check, it's like, ‘Oh I have five coins at a Pizza Hut, and I know the next day, the next month, the next week, I'm going to have another check,’” he said. “That's not how it works in the real world.”

Coach Ryan Day addressed NIL with the team earlier this summer and encouraged players to be smart with their money.

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Referencing the advice, Harrison vowed he would spend his income on “nothing stupid.”

Finding balance between NIL opportunities, team responsibilities

On the eve of preseason practices and a slate of games that will span the final four months of 2021, the players will be tasked with balancing prospective deals with team activities.

A Sunday signing in September or October would conflict with afternoon meetings and practices. Mitchell proposes he might do an event on Monday, an off day for the Buckeyes. It’s also why their management company is setting up possibilities to fit with their schedules.

Ohio State football fans stand in line to get autographs from Buckeyes' defensive starters Zach Harrison, Haskell Garrett, and Teradja Mitchell. This kind of autograph session with current players had been forbidden in the past.

A lot of endorsements will likely happen on social media, where athletes can promote products on their profiles.

Day sees that trend as one likely to limit time management issues for players. They can easily schedule promotional posts during their downtime.

Public appearances would then be more likely to occur in the offseason and summer months, when there are more free hours in the day.    

Before Sunday’s signing at Conrads, a line of people stretched for a block outside the door, brought in after seeing billboards around Easton and online advertisements promoting Harrison, Garrett and Mitchell.

After a season playing in front of empty stadiums across the Big Ten, the players appreciated the interactions.

“Especially with COVID, it's been a while,” Mitchell said. “It's a blessing to see their faces, see the smiles on their faces and see their support. It's awesome.”

Fans largely wished them good luck ahead of the season as they signed pictures, football, mini helmets and more.

Along with writing their names on Ohio State apparel, the players also used personalized branded apparel for autographs.

A fashion and retail studies major, Mitchell launched a clothing brand called Above The Realm earlier this month. 

Garrett and Harrison also had personal T-shirts. The gear was sold on the store racks alongside the various Ohio State shirts and sweatshirts.

In the emerging era, they too have brands to put on display.

Ohio State Buckeyes defensive starters (l-r)  #9 Zach Harrison, #92 Haskell Garrett, and #3 Teradja Mitchell  for their first-ever autograph session  at Conrads College Gifts at Easton Gateway on Sunday, August 1, 2021.


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