The college sports world changed in a big way July 1, when the NCAA passed legislation that allows student-athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness (NIL). With that, the University of Michigan athletic department — including the football program — has fully embraced the new normal.
In a groundbreaking development, Michigan’s players were the first in the country to have a deal with their school’s official merchandise retailer — The MDen — so that they can make money off their jersey sales. Several Wolverines have partnered with different companies, created their own merchandise lines, participated in advertisements and signed autographs for pay — all legal in the new age of NIL.
But with great power comes great responsibility, and not only does the Michigan football program understand that … the Wolverines decided to do something about it.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh and Co. brought in Didier Occident, founder and CEO of Secure The Bag, a program that “equips athletes to become elite stewards of their finances through effective repetition designed to align their actions with their intentions,” to help educate the Michigan players on financial literacy.
Occident founded Secure The Bag at Florida State University in 2018, and has since expanded the program nationwide. Just last month, he spoke to the football teams at Alabama, Oregon and Western Kentucky, in addition to his visit to Ann Arbor.
There were discussions between Occident and Michigan for roughly 18 months, but with all the new changes in college sports in July, the timing was perfect for him to get in front of the team.
Occident’s speech hit on many key points, and many of them were presented as parallels to what they do as students and athletes, with discipline being crucial.
“The main thing that we want to help them understand is, the longest relationship they’re ever going to have in their life is going to be their relationship with money,” Occident told TheWolverine.com. “We spend more time trying to retain it, think about it … so we need to know how to manage it. And understanding — I say this all the time — if you can’t manage $1,000, you can’t manage $1 million.
“While we have a great opportunity with the NIL, for them to be compensated, etc., what ultimately do we want? Are you guys going to take the opportunity, with your stipends, with the NIL … I want to show them how they can build a springboard that can catapult them into adulthood to be financially responsible. We don’t want it to be something that we had fun for a few years.
“And really understanding how, the impact of the decisions they have today — while they seem small — can have a compounding effect. Each day of practice, in itself, is insignificant, but what adds up over time — you’re a result of the work you put in. So while one bad decision doesn’t hurt you, if you continuously have bad decisions, you’re not going to reach your potential on the football field, you’re not going to reach your potential academically, you’re not going to reach your potential financially. So understanding the impact every single day of those decisions that they make, how it impacts them in all walks of life.”
The substance Occident preaches is important for anybody, anywhere. But it’s become even more crucial for student-athletes now that they’ll be able to have some extra cash in their pockets. On top of that, they still have to honor their commitments as football players and students, something Occident values and made sure to touch on in his presentation.
“It’s really important that these guys make the most of this opportunity because they were given the opportunity that previous athletes weren’t, and now they’ve raised the stakes,” Occident pointed out. “Understanding the impact of taxes and understanding that making this money is great, but two things — you have to understand that nobody cares if you’re not performing on the field, so you have to make sure you don’t let it take away from your craft.
“Then, you have to make sure you’re taking advantage of the income and setting yourself up for sustained success. It’s about being consistent, and the message I really take with the guys is, ‘Your consistency on the field is going to lead to these opportunities, and your consistency financially is going to lead to your long-term success.’
“If managing money now is difficult, try managing it when you have a family and bills to pay and things to support. It’s never going to be easier — if you can’t manage it now when it’s at its easiest, how are you going to manage it when you’re at adulthood? It only gets harder, so that’s what I want those guys to understand.”
This wasn’t just one speech, either, and the Michigan staff wanted to make sure of that coming in. Occident is now in the “follow-up phase,” where he’s in contact with U-M players who have sought further advice, and they’re working to set up another speech in the near future.
“It was something where they’re not just checking the box,” Occident explained. “One of the first things they were asking me was, “What does this look like after your first talk?’ Because that’s what’s most important to me … we’ve all heard an engaging speaker — you get the dopamine flowing in your brain and you get excited. It gets your blood flowing. And then a week later, you’re back to your old life, and nothing really changed.
“So it was really important for them to talk about, ‘Hey, this is great, but how do we sustain this and really build this where we’re going to impact the student-athletes the whole way through the time.’ So I’m excited about that. I got to meet Coach Harbaugh, as well, and he was amazing.”
Known for his quick wittedness, Harbaugh offered some financial advice of his own.
“One of his pieces of financial advice that he said — he had a great one-liner — he said, ‘Spend the eggs, not the chicken,’ something like that,” Occident said with a laugh. “And that is essentially it, right? We have to understand that you have to have something to fall back on, and you have to have residual income. Spend the eggs, not the chicken — I love that. I told him that was good and I might have to incorporate that with my stuff.”
NIL comes with plenty of challenges, one of the most prominent being the fact that the athletes, who are now, in some cases, employees of different businesses, will have to pay taxes. That’s going to be a focal point in Occident’s potential future presentation to the team.
One thing is clear, at this point, though — the Michigan program is embracing the new age of college sports, and the players are taking a smart approach to what their next steps will be. The feedback so far has been outstanding, Occident said.
“Kids just blow me away, because people think they’re just athletes and just kids, but when you meet them at their level, they care deeply about this stuff,” he raved. “And it still blows me away with the feedback you get from these guys, who say, ‘Thank you so much.’ And the vulnerability they have, in terms of questions they have once you meet them at their level. That part is just always one of the most rewarding parts of the feedback that I get after from the guys.”