College athletes’ sponsorships can be about more than money

UNC’s Sam Howell uses his platform to promote hunger-fighting nonprofit

Sam Howell, a rising junior at the University of North Carolina, is Atlantic Coast Conference Preseason Player of the Year. The quarterback, who hails from Union County near Charlotte, got 114 votes from the 147 media members who make the selection.

Howell’s a generational football talent at UNC, holding the ACC record for touchdown passes in a player’s first two seasons (68). (That’s two more than Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence had his first two seasons.)

Howell’s tied with four-year starter Darian Durant for Carolina’s career touchdown pass record. Howell’s a legitimate contender for the Heisman Trophy. If he stays healthy, he’s almost a lock for the first round of next year’s NFL Draft.

He’s a big name who can use that profile in ways his predecessors couldn’t. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling said the NCAA couldn’t continue denying amateur status to scholarship athletes who profit from the use of their name, image, and likeness. More than a dozen states anticipated the decision by enacting NIL-related laws, with NIL bills pending in others.

Some athletes who’ve accomplished much less than Sam Howell have secured major endorsement deals. Alabama football coach Nick Saban said incoming quarterback Bryce Johnson, who hasn’t started a game for the Crimson Tide, was offered “nearly seven figures” for his endorsement.

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Someone with Howell’s credentials should easily line up sponsors.

He has. Charlotte-based Bojangles is Howell’s second “partner.” It’s a natural, since Howell doesn’t eat beef or pork.

His first? TABLE, a Chapel Hill-based nonprofit with six employees that provides healthy meals and nutrition education to hundreds of Orange County K-12 students weekly. Howell announced both partnerships, as the kids do these days, on his Instagram account.

Note the backdrop for his Bojangles announcement.

Details about the partnership with TABLE remain light. Howell isn’t much of a self-promoter. The day before Howell announced his Bojangles endorsement, the News & Observer’s Luke DeCock noted the absence of a bling-heavy campaign from UNC to promote Howell for the Heisman:

Just as Howell has signed with an agent to handle any endorsement deals but has yet to actually sign any, a Heisman publicity campaign isn’t really his style. Despite being the focus of the team for two seasons and a national star going into his third, he hasn’t exactly embraced the public spotlight, although he certainly hasn’t shied away either.

He’s done most of his talking on the field. The same will be said of his Heisman candidacy. There’s nothing surprising or unusual about that.

He’s also not saying (much) about his partnerships. NIL rules prevent universities from discussing sponsorship deals with students. I got no response from a message left with his agency, Everett Sports Marketing.

But the word’s getting out.

Hunger in Orange County

Orange County may have the third-highest median income among North Carolina counties. Even so, pockets of poverty persist.

In a news release, TABLE’s Executive Director Ashton Tippins highlighted the nonprofit’s mission.

In North Carolina, 20% of kids struggle with hunger and 15.5% of children living in Orange County are food insecure. TABLE has been feeding children in the community since 2008, successfully delivering over 200,000 bags of healthy non-perishables and fresh food to the kids we serve. We look forward to working with Sam to help us continue to raise awareness for food insecurity among children in Orange County, and to help us continue to provide kids with healthy and nutritious food every week.

The folks at TABLE are still brainstorming about developing the partnership. 

“We’re working on trying to secure a time for [Howell] to come out here and load up his car and go out and deliver food to the kids,” said Suzanne Tormollen, TABLE’s director of community relations. She expressed hope that between summer practices, the opening of the academic year, and preparation for the season, he’ll be able to handle a delivery route in August. Maybe a role in the organization’s major fund-raising event this fall.

“We do three delivery shifts every week and we’re delivering over 700 meals a week,” Tormollen said. Each shift is between 200 and 230 kids over seven routes. They use 14 drivers, and between 80 and 100 volunteers are involved in packing, loading, and delivery.

Food is sorted, bagged, and delivered throughout the week. Nonperishable items are bagged Monday. Produce and other fresh foods go in the bags Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and out the door the day they’re packed. 

Carolina students have provided a lot of help to TABLE over its 13-year history. Tippins, who heads the nonprofit, is a UNC alum and former TABLE volunteer. Its office is not far from campus and a few blocks from student housing.

“A lot of our interns are students from UNC,” Tormollen said, including shift leaders who supervise the other volunteers.

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Students and community service

TABLE is one of 13 local organizations with interns and other volunteers placed from UNC’s chapter of the Bonner Leaders Program. It’s a national campus-based network that provides scholarships and work-study credit for first-year students. The students make four-year commitments to volunteer at organizations in their university community.

Laura Dille, TABLE’s director of operations, was a Bonner Program volunteer while she attended UNC.

The Bonner Leaders Program operates through the Campus Y, which hosts more than 30 volunteer groups. The Campus Y’s focus is social justice. It’s a longstanding part of UNC Student Affairs, the umbrella office for charitable groups connecting student volunteers with the local community.

Carolina isn’t unique. Every college and most high schools offer students opportunities to volunteer and enrich community connections. It’s an underappreciated aspect of student life. If handled with care, it’s a way to develop a spirit of engagement among alumni that can last long after they leave campus.

Having Sam Howell, a high-profile college athlete, as the public face of a local nonprofit can highlight the value of community service.

“Obviously we’re excited and we’re thankful that he’s supporting us,” Tormollen said. “Having someone like Sam on board to raise awareness is a huge opportunity for us.”