The college football landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade. It started with the transfer portal making a pseudo free agency in college football. Now, it’s the money college athletes can receive for using their Name, Image and Likeness (NIL).
Some college athletes are bringing in more money while attending their respective universities than rookies on the rookie pay scale in the NFL. But while some fans believe these athletes are nothing more than self-serving ego-maniacs, not all athletes are taking their money and spending it on themselves.
In fact, many athletes are using this money to help others, and Pittsburgh Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett was one of the first to do so during his time at the University of Pittsburgh.
In July 2021, Pickett became the first Pitt Panthers player to sign an NIL deal, and he started an association with the Oaklander Hotel and Restaurant, Spirits & Tales. But he didn’t just use the deal for himself. He used it for his “hog dinners.”
For my first NIL deal, I want to make sure I can take care of the big guys who take care of me. I’m excited to announce my association with the Oaklander Hotel & their restaurant, Spirits & Tales, where I will be treating my linemen to our weekly Hog Dinners! #OaklanderPartner pic.twitter.com/hek0x0ujB3— Kenny Pickett (@kennypickett10) July 15, 2021
Pickett helping out his teammates is something he’s always done, but after his NIL deal, he was able to do it far more often.
“We would go out before the first game of the season,” Pickett told ESPN, when recalling his early days at Pitt. “I would cover that bill, but obviously the scholarship checks don’t run deep like that. So I could only do it once before the season started.
“I wish I had this my whole career. I think there are other things we could build and get a lot more people involved on the team,” Pickett said. “I wanted to get the offensive line involved as much as possible ... having the opportunity to take care of them and getting to spend more time with them on Monday nights, it means a lot.”
The partnership with the Oaklander Hotel and Restaurant wasn’t the only NIL deal Pickett signed. As Allison Torres Burtka of Global Sport Matters wrote, Pickett collaborated with several other companies. However, just like his “hog dinners,” Pickett wanted to use these deals to help others.
Two of the deals were with a trucking company and an apparel company, both of which Pickett collaborated with to produce “Pickett’s Partners” t-shirts. All the proceeds went to another of his partners: the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania.
As Burtka reported, the Boys & Girls Club is very near to Pickett’s heart:
Pickett spent a lot of time at a Boys & Girls Club in New Jersey growing up, and he wanted to give back, explains Scott Koskoski, vice president of advancement for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. “His Boys & Girls Club experience really stuck with him,” Koskoski says. “In the advent of the NIL era, Kenny very quickly reached out to us … and expressed a desire to be a part of the Boys & Girls Clubs here in Pittsburgh.”
Pickett visited summer day campers and gave them T-shirts while also drawing attention to the T-shirts for sale. Months later, Koskoski says, “our youth have not forgotten that. They still tell the story of the day Kenny Pickett came to the clubhouse.”
When NIL deals opened up for him, Pickett went back to his roots. “Kenny is far from the first student-athlete to walk into a Boys & Girls Club somewhere in the country and volunteer,” Koskoski says. “But NIL offers student-athletes the opportunity to formalize that, and organize that, and to put a brand around it. And from that brand can come real resources that can move missions forward.”
Jessi Marsh, a spokeswoman for the clubs that benefited from Pickett’s Partners t-shirts, said the money will be used to help fund programs that introduce kids to sports and educational programming for robotics and artificial intelligence.
“I think that college athletes have a really interesting opportunity in front of them,” Marsh said. “It’s wonderful to see them be able to do some things that only pro athletes have been able to do. Just like pro athletes, you’re going to see some of them take advantage of the opportunity to shine a light on important work that’s being done in the community.”
Pickett didn’t just donate the money, he attended events and wanted to show the kids he was willing to take the time to be present with them.
“He didn’t just hand them a t-shirt and go onto the next kid,” Marsh said. “He got down on their level and he asked them their name and I saw him shaking hands and giving pats on their shoulders. It was really heartwarming.”
What Pickett was able to do with his NIL is something that has become a blueprint for other athletes who have yet to join the professional ranks. It also shines a light on the type of person Pickett is, and his overall focus on helping others.