“Whether it’s name, image and likeness, or whether it’s the awards that you’re gonna get,” North Carolina football head coach Mack Brown said, “it’s about your ball, it’s not about your brand.”
That sentiment, "don’t let your brand get ahead of your ball," was repeated throughout UNC’s appearance at the 2021 ACC Football Kickoff on Wednesday. While the statement may come across as a simple truism — of course, in a sport where on-field performance almost entirely dictates how far your brand reaches, your game has to be considered above all else — its core tenets were backed by the UNC players in attendance.
There was quarterback Sam Howell, a Heisman hopeful and potential No. 1 selection in next year’s NFL draft — making him one of the most likely candidates to benefit from the new NIL rules — who said his goal is to keep the main thing, his football, the main thing.
“I’m just looking for more opportunities, things where I can involve my teammates, get them involved as well,” Howell said. “As a team, we’ve just gotta make sure we keep the main thing the main thing, and that’s winning football games.”
While Brown admitted on Wednesday he was initially in favor of maintaining amateurism and the status quo on NIL rights — a conversation with his wife, Sally, convinced him otherwise — UNC has been on the forefront of NIL innovation, introducing the first group licensing program for NCAA athletes.
“What (Director of Athletics) Bubba (Cunningham) is trying to do, what I want us to do, is be able to help the whole team out,” Brown said. “North Carolina should be a place where name, image and likeness should be a great advantage for us, because we have a lot of great people.”
Senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said since NIL rights were introduced for NCAA athletes, UNC athletics has hired staff to meet with athletes before they make an NIL deal. Still, Gemmel, a likely future NFL draft pick and one of the Tar Heels’ key defensive leaders, said he’s approaching possible NIL deals with caution.
“Right now I’m just taking my time with it, being careful,” Gemmel said. “I’m more focused on ball.”
Among the Tar Heels to benefit from the new NIL rules have been Howell — who announced a partnership with TABLE, a nonprofit aiming to provide hunger relief for children in Orange County, and signed on as a brand partner with Bojangles — and sophomore cornerback Tony Grimes, who held an event at Chapel Hill Sportswear on Saturday signing autographs and selling T-shirts.
In the same vein of some other Brown truisms in his three years back in Chapel Hill (see: "elevate the level of the program" and "you’ve got to earn it to stay") Brown and the Tar Heels’ “don’t let your brand get ahead of your ball” approach to NIL has similarities to UNC’s on-field approach: Don’t get too far ahead of yourself, and focus on the task at hand.
“We’re all about our work over here at Carolina,” graduate linebacker Tomon Fox said when asked about the hype surrounding the team. “Once we’re out on the field, we put that out to the side and focus on what’s in front of us.”