The changes rippling through college football in the past two years have been impossible to ignore, but what has often been overlooked amid the upheaval is the people driving that change.
ESPN looked at 10 key areas where the sport is in flux, and we identified 11 of the biggest power brokers, influencers and advocates driving those changes. We asked each of them about the current state of college football, the issues that brought us here and what the future might look like as the sport continues to evolve.
Realignment and future of superconferences: Greg Sankey, SEC commissioner
From realignment to playoff expansion, no one in college sports has wielded more influence than SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. With the addition of Texas and Oklahoma announced last summer, the SEC set the wheels in motion for superconferences to emerge, and Sankey has even floated the idea of an SEC-only playoff. He's also the co-chair of the NCAA transformation committee, helping craft the blueprint for the future of college sports governance. Amid all that change, Sankey isn't ready to abandon the core tenets of traditional college football in favor of a more professionalized future.
"We're tangled up in process," Sankey said. "Everybody wants to touch, feel, have time to think through, and we're at a time where change -- whether we want it to or not -- is happening rapidly around us. We're going to have to adapt to that pace."
In July, we spoke with Sankey about the future of superconferences, among other key issues facing the sport.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
ESPN: Many people seem to think two superconferences is a foregone conclusion. Do you agree? And what is the SEC's role in that?
Sankey: I can remember my first conversation on that topic in 1998, about conferences going into the upper 20s [in membership]. But take a step back and ask why. Is it because we're transitioning away from a national governance and two entities have too much control? Does that allow us to support young people in the optimal way? There are a lot of questions that aren't answered by the observation. We don't feel a sense of urgency. There's not motivation to just get to a number. Why would we add? Last year when we added, we restored some rivalries, created some more, we're in contiguous states, we added like-minded universities and facilitated relatively efficient travel.
ESPN: So what might get us to superconferences then?
Sankey: It's impossible to answer all the hypotheticals, but we're mindful to what's happening around us. But you don't just make change because it sounds great to be at 18 or 20. You have to think about the right affiliations, opportunities and culture. Part of our work is to support, sustain and magnify a healthy culture, and that's one of the most under-observed realities in college sports today. That informs how we make national decisions. Can we collaborate together?
ESPN: The SEC floated holding its own playoff. Is that something you might pursue? How should the playoff look as conference membership shifts?
Sankey: Last fall, we'd never had a discussion of a 16-team football schedule until August. In November, when we first looked at the range of possibilities, a conference-only approach was on our agenda. That's been put in a folder. We want to be healthy contributors to a national championship endeavor. But in January, when the conferences walked away from a 12-team model, my very clear statement to my colleagues was, if we're going back to square one, understand that the Southeastern Conference is going to take an entirely new look at expansion. What's happened is really informative to our thinking. We're pulling back from all the work to get to a 12-team model with six conference champions and six at-large. [The SEC] was never unanimous on that, which means a lot of pushing and pulling from the commissioner's chair. But if everybody wants to say no to this, we've got to look anew. And now you have different data points entering with the Pac-12, Big 12 and others changing, that's an important part of our postseason consideration.
ESPN: You're the commissioner of the SEC. It's not your job, necessarily, to look out for everyone else. But I hear enough from fans that the sport is just chasing money rather than serving the greater good. Do you think your job should include the overall growth and success of college football, beyond the borders of the SEC?
Sankey: We've had a lot of change. All of us thinking big-picture has to be rethought, repositioned and reemphasized. But I'll give you an example: The SEC did not need to expand the College Football Playoff early. We didn't pound our fists about it. We looked at our colleague conferences who, rather than play through the 12-year cycle, demanded expansion sooner than later. I think it's a problem we've not had any meaningful West Coast participation in the playoff since 2016. I don't think that's good for college football. [The SEC] didn't need a 12-team playoff, and we certainly didn't need to give conference champions guaranteed access, but that seemed like an enormously healthy step in bringing new participants in and ensuring different regions participate. We can look big-picture, but some didn't want to move. Now we have to go back and rethink our position. We're certainly not perfect, and I'm not going to be altruistic in everything, but that's good evidence that we can think beyond our own needs to figure out how to keep college football strong across the nation.
ESPN: Do you think college football is in a healthy spot, and is it poised to be better 10 years from now?
Sankey: I do think it's poised to be healthy. Our decision-making over the next few years will play a significant role in answering that question, ultimately.
-- David M. Hale
Governance and regulation: U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)
The change happening in college sports is as likely to come from outside the NCAA -- via the courts or the federal or state legislatures -- as it is from inside, and perhaps no politician has had been as outspoken about name, image and likeness, player compensation and the big business of college football as U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who co-sponsored a college athlete bill of rights, introduced legislation for an unrestricted national NIL policy and has supported player unionization.
We spoke to Murphy about the government's role in the sport's future.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
ESPN: Should the federal government be helping to dictate the direction of college sports?
Murphy: I wish the federal government didn't have to play an active role. I wish big-time college football figured out on their own that they're running a professional league and that they are perpetuating a grave injustice on these athletes who are getting paid nothing for an incredibly valuable service. But since they're interested only in preserving the status quo, we have a massive workers' rights and civil rights issue on our hands that I don't think Congress can ignore.
ESPN: The NCAA has begged Congress to step in on NIL legislation, and there are some real concerns with consumer protections and supporting athletes in the space. Do you think Congress should act?
Murphy: For the first time, players are being empowered, and that scares the hell out of the college football industry. What college football is asking Congress to do is to take rights away from players and to give those rights back to the schools or to the NCAA. I'm not interested in that. I get that there's risk of an uneven playing field, but you can solve that by creating a broad, national, unfettered right for players to access name, image and likeness payments.
ESPN: You're in favor of direct payments to players as employees. Do you think that's the logical end point here?
Murphy: The future seems to be that a handful of schools, a few conferences, potentially becoming minor leagues for the NFL, and I'm fine with that. If the Big Ten and the SEC consolidate power and become the minor leagues to the NFL, that's fine, because, in part, it makes it easier to justify paying the players at those schools. There may be a sorting out in which a handful of schools and conferences decide to become minor leagues and those schools get paid, and college football continues at other schools. It just won't look the same as it does right now.
ESPN: If there's a breakaway for leagues who essentially become an NFL feeder system, what role do academics play? It's still college football, after all.
Murphy: The schools have done this to themselves. It's no secret that academics take a huge backseat to athletics at some Power 5 schools. Some of these academic programs are laughable. If it ends up an official minor leagues, then you have to figure out exactly what the utility is of the academic experience.
ESPN: What do you think the economic landscape of college football will be in a decade?
Murphy: I think one of the biggest variables is what the courts are going to do. I think the NCAA is likely an illegal monopoly, and the court will probably come to that conclusion, given the direction the Supreme Court is heading on this issue of amateur athletics. So I think the hardest thing to know is whether the entire industry is going to be disrupted by court decisions. If I had to guess, I think in college football, you will have a handful of conferences that will become the unofficial feeder to the NFL. And in those conferences, players will get substantial compensation. And college football will continue at other schools, and people will love it, and tens of thousands of people will show up to watch.
Name, image and likeness: Jim Cavale, founder INFLCR
Jim Cavale founded INFLCR, a platform used by colleges to track and send content to athletes, in 2017. Since then, the business has exploded to serve more than 170 teams and more than 100,000 athletes, helping them build and manage their brands. We caught up with Cavale to ask him about the past, present and future of NIL.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
ESPN: What was the original intent of name, image and likeness?
Cavale: It really came from the core intention of opening up the opportunity for student-athletes to realize their value off the field in ways that had not been allowed. It's the pure example of the UCF kicker Donald de la Haye, also known as "Deestroying" on social media, and he's got all this opportunity to earn revenue with his YouTube and Instagram while he's kicking as a scholarship athlete. And he has to make a decision: Does he quit and keep pursuing his social media revenue or does he quit and pursue his college athletic career? Now you can do both.
ESPN: What did NIL become? In a sense, where are we now?
Cavale: Traditional NIL was based on what we saw for pro athletes for decades. The difference, though, is pro athletes have a lot of help. ... College athletes don't have a player's association and 99% of them don't command enough earnings potential to have a real agent. And they also don't have a lot of time because unlike pro athletes, they have to go to class. So those realities of inefficiencies and fragmentation and lesser resources, especially from their schools who don't feel like they can help them with NIL because of state laws limiting their involvement, this has given way to nontraditional NIL. And nontraditional NIL is where the rabid fan bases are rallying together to support athletes in actually making dollars with their NIL.
ESPN: This is where collectives come in?
Cavale: The reason collectives came about is because the first six months schools were so hands-off with NIL and everyone was seeing that it's really hard for athletes to actually activate their NIL. It's like starting a business. The collectives said, "Let's organize donors to put money together and activate those dollars with athletes in creative ways since it's so hard." At schools where $10-15 million is being raised and the school's not involved, it can be a little taboo because now who's in control?
ESPN: That leads into my last question: What's next?
Cavale: The schools who've been proactive said, "We've gotta have our collective run through our system so we can see what they're doing and we've gotta make them understand they have to work within our framework," those schools are the ones who really have it together. Whereas other schools who are like, "These are millionaires and we can't really tell 'em what to do, we're gonna let them work with our athletes and we're just not involved," those are the schools that may end up in a tough situation. The future is schools will bring it in-house ... [and] collectives will be a little more regulated because the school is more involved. And for these rogue collectives, let's look at the reality of the math. Let's stay in the SEC for example. Let's say the average SEC school has a collective that raises $10 million to do NIL deals with athletes. So $140 million total across 14 schools. And they start to activate deals, mostly appearances, and those types of things that show value exchange, they're legal, they're within the policy with 18-22-year-old kids that they think are going to be really good on the field. How many teams make the SEC Championship? Two. So how does the $120 million from the 12 schools that didn't do as well -- or especially the $60 million that have been given across the six bottom schools -- how do those donors feel when they basically did a quote-unquote "NIL deal" with a student-athlete that maybe didn't play as much or got injured or did play and didn't perform as well? How much endurance do those dollars have over time versus those dollars going back into, "Let's build a building with our family name on it, let's start a scholarship fund with our family name on it"? That's the future of collectives.
-- Alex Scarborough
Player unionization: Ramogi Huma, executive director National College Players Association
This spring, Ramogi Huma, got his hopes up -- again -- that politicians might force college football to take a step the sport had long avoided. Huma is the executive director of the National College Players Association, and in his home state of California, the senate was considering SB-1401, otherwise known as the "College Athlete Race and Gender Equality Act," or as most power brokers in college sports viewed it, the bill that could deal a final blow to amateurism.
If it passed, SB-1401 would've required California universities to share athletics revenue with athletes -- basically a pay-for-play system. And, as Huma's previous work on name, image and likeness policy in California showed, if pay-for-play became law in one state, it was only a matter of time before it was everywhere.
The bill died in committee, however.
"When I started this organization, I hoped it would've been pretty simple," Huma said. "But that's not the case. We're up against real power. And it takes real power. We have no illusion the NCAA would someday be proactive on these issues. It's not."
But even the challenges, Huma said, represent a step forward. If he hasn't reached his ultimate goal of getting college athletes paid, his work has markedly changed the conversation.
When Huma first posed the idea of NIL policy to state legislators, he was met with a mix of indifference, ignorance and dismissiveness. But with each new conversation, argument and policy session, the needle moved a little more in his direction.
"I watched that bill nearly die three times," Huma said. "And eventually it passed with unanimous bipartisan support."
Conversations about paying athletes have shifted from taking away Reggie Bush's Heisman trophy to widespread public support, new discussions about player unions have emerged and a belief among many coaches, ADs and power brokers, that direct compensation is more a matter of when than if it happens.
The funny thing, Huma said, is this didn't have to be such a painful process. His advocacy began in the mid-1990s when he started a student group while a football player at UCLA. That morphed into the NCPA, and he's continually pushed for more resources, protections, safety guidelines and, yes, money for athletes.
And at each step, the NCAA pushed back.
"They could've gotten away with much, much less than what's happening right now if they'd just thrown us a bone," Huma said last year, in the aftermath of NIL rules taking effect nationwide. "But they doubled down and tripled down. They ran to the Supreme Court over $6,000 in optional educational support. They gambled the house and lost over $6,000 of education benefits. That's the DNA of this organization. That's who the NCAA is."
The landscape is changing. Players have more power than at any time in the last century. The NCAA's grip on college athletics has loosened, and major conferences are flirting with a breakaway. NIL has laid the groundwork for players being treated as employees.
It's easy to envision a finish line for Huma's work, but he's not close to declaring victory.
"In a sense, the wind is at our back," he said. "But I also know there are real barriers. We've just got to keep throwing haymakers and one day we're going to look up and see that another one has landed."
Coaching: Tyson Helton, Western Kentucky head coach
For many coaches, particularly in the Group of 5, the transfer portal is the stuff of nightmares. Tyson Helton, surprisingly, doesn't see it that way. After the 2021 season in which Western Kentucky went 9-5 -- 7-2 in Conference USA -- and an earned Boca Raton Bowl win over Appalachian State, he lost key players to Penn State, Ole Miss, Minnesota, Texas Tech and Auburn.
But Helton has already seen the instant impact that a warm embrace of the portal can have on his program. A year ago, Helton hired rising star offensive coordinator Zach Kittley from Houston Baptist, who arrived with an entire passing attack in tow in quarterback Bailey Zappe and wide receivers Jerreth Sterns and Josh Sterns.
With all those imports, the Hilltoppers set NCAA records for passing yards (5,967) and TDs (62) and finished second to Ohio State in yards per game (536.2). Zappe was the CUSA MVP, and Jerreth Sterns joined Michael Crabtree and DeVonta Smith as the only receivers since 2000 to lead the country in receptions, yards and touchdowns.
Kittley decamped back to Texas to return Texas Tech to its high-flying ways, where he learned the trade as a volunteer coach under Kliff Kingsbury. Zappe was a fourth-round pick by the New England Patriots and Jerreth Sterns signed as an undrafted free agent with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while younger brother Josh is returning.
A year after embracing the portal as a way of life, Helton is even more convinced that there is a newfound way to build a roster.
"I look at NFL free agency," Helton said. "You get an opportunity to make your team what you want it to be every year."
Helton began this year's team rebuilding by giving a big opportunity to two young assistants, Ben Arbuckle and Josh Crawford, who both worked under Kittley last season, to replace him as co-offensive coordinators, despite both being high school offensive coordinators just two years ago. Helton then signed transfer quarterback Jarret Doege, who has 32 career starts between Bowling Green and West Virginia.
"You know, you can't get down when a guy leaves, because there's the next star out there somewhere and you just got to keep flipping those rocks over to find them," Helton said.
For Helton, what's important is making Western Kentucky a place that is attractive to players, whether they're on the current roster or looking for a chance to play. Some jump at the chance to move up a level. But he said plenty have stayed because of their culture and honest conversations.
"These are young professional people," Helton said. "We call them student-athletes. They are. But in an NIL world, they're learning how to be young professionals. So I treat them that way. I'm very honest with them. I'm pretty frank with them. And I say, 'Hey, for a football season, we're all attached at the hip, and at the end of the season, we'll all decide what is the next step.'"
And if that next step means he has to go find a new coach on the rise, or a player looking for a chance to throw for 5,000 yards, so be it.
"My job as a head coach is to recreate that team and to get that production again," Helton said. "... The next Bailey Zappe is out there somewhere."
Recruiting: Deion Sanders, Jackson State coach
Deion Sanders has had the All-22 view for college football recruiting.
He went through the process nearly 40 years ago as a quarterback/cornerback from Fort Myers, Florida, choosing to play at Florida State. He had a front-row seat for the recruitment of sons Deion and Shilo to SMU and South Carolina, respectively. As a high school coach in Texas, Sanders regularly had players recruited by colleges. Sanders also has direct experience with name, image and likeness through son Shedeur, who plays quarterback for him at Jackson State. In January, Shedeur became the first HBCU player to sign an NIL agreement with Gatorade.
"There are several different lenses I'm looking through with recruiting," Sanders told ESPN.
Sanders, entering his third season as Jackson State's coach, has capitalized on his layered recruiting knowledge to secure prospects never thought possible for an HBCU program. Jackson State was on the right end of a signing day shocker when Travis Hunter, ESPN's No. 2 overall recruit in the 2022 class, flipped from Florida State to play for Sanders and the Tigers. The team signed another ESPN top-100 recruit in wide receiver Kevin Coleman and two other ESPN four-star players.
Shedeur highlighted Jackson State's 2021 class -- ESPN rated him No. 61 overall -- but the team signed three other ESPN 300 recruits and ESPN's No. 4 junior-college prospect. Before Sanders' arrival, Jackson State had not signed an ESPN-rated recruit since 2013.
"We opened up the eyes that you can go after a four-star, go after a five-star, and have an opportunity to win that kid over," Sanders said. "But we go after the guys we want, not just because they're four stars and five stars."
Sanders is blunt about today's recruit, who he believes has a singular focus with his college choice: NIL.
"They're not thinking about the scheme, not thinking about the [academic] majors offered, not thinking about the city, not thinking about how they're going to fit in your program," Sanders said. "It's definitely a challenge for the FCS group, a tremendous challenge."
The challenge for Sanders, who built a massive brand during his Hall of Fame NFL playing career, is convincing recruits that there are steps to stardom. Because of Sanders, Jackson State can provide a platform HBCU players have never had before.
But NIL can't be the sole motivator, a message Sanders relays to recruits' parents, especially mothers, who are "brutally honest" about their sons and expect the same from coaches.
"I don't get into building a brand, I get into, 'Focus on your game,'" Sanders said. "If you're garbage on the field, who wants your brand? We've got to start focusing on getting to the NFL, and not obtaining NIL [deals]."
-- Adam Rittenberg
Analytics: Mike Taylor, co-founder AgDiago
When Mike Taylor worked for the American Football Coaches Association, he noticed coaches spending less and less time on actual coaching. Recruiting dominated their days.
In 2016, Taylor co-founded AgDiago to streamline the evaluation of prospects, not for traits and behaviors that can be seen, but ones that can't. With some behavioral scientists, AgDiago developed a 15-minute online assessment that gauges players in five traits. The company works with Pittsburgh, Michigan, Western Michigan, Kansas State, Division II national champion Ferris State and other programs, and is in discussions with several NFL and college teams.
"It's personalities and how to coach a player," Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. "This is all about who that person is. You can't cheat the test."
ESPN spoke with Taylor about AgDiago -- "A Good Defense Is A Good Offense."
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
ESPN: What is AgDiago identifying with these assessments?
Taylor: When a coach says, "I've got a gut feeling about that kid," we're really making that gut feeling, the invisible, visible. They know what the athletic side is. It's uncovering what's unseen, the behavioral, and unlocking that side. We're trying to help coaches connect to their players quicker and start to coach more and recruit less.
ESPN: How did you identify the traits to measure?
Taylor: We assessed a large group, [and] from there, we found the five top strengths found in elite players, and built the assessment. The strengths are competitiveness; mastery, which a lot of times falls into watching film, preparing for your opponent, studying your position on your own; persistence, which is often referred to as grit; team orientation; and then work ethic.
ESPN: Coaches have always assessed these traits anecdotally. How confident were you that the traits could be gauged scientifically?
Taylor: In the beginning, I wasn't sure we could dive as far down as we did. We ended up being extremely accurate. The NFL uses all types of different assessments, which are great, but they're not football-specific. They don't tell the whole story. We had to make sure our assessment was quick, while also being accurate.
ESPN: What has it been like convincing coaches to adopt the assessment for recruits and players?
Taylor: The proof really comes when we assess a few players and say, "Let's give you the full picture." That's when they say, "That's what we were looking for. We can use this tool." It's always going toward: This athlete is best coached through their strengths.
ESPN: How does AgDiago fit into the analytics space?
Taylor: Analytics became something we knew we were part of, but it was more trying to do something to make the game better. We're bringing in different variables with NIL. The transfer portal is another piece. As one coach told me, it's speed dating. So connecting with your players and knowing them better, beyond the physical and the athletic traits, is going to be paramount. If you don't, you're going to be chasing too many ghosts that you'll never catch.
Diversity and inclusion: Mike Locksley, Maryland head coach
Despite a push to increase diversity hires in recent years, the number of Black head coaches on the FBS level has stagnated.
For the demographics to change, there must be an intentional process that goes beyond simply identifying top minority candidates. That's where Maryland coach Mike Locksley is working to open doors that, too often, had been closed to Black assistants.
In 2020 during the pandemic, Locksley formed the National Coalition of Minority Football Coaches in the wake of the racial and social justice movements across the United States. He realized since his time as New Mexico head coach more than a decade ago, the number of Black head coaches in FBS had decreased.
"I'm the head coach at Maryland, that's already enough work to do," Locksley said. "But I feel like it's time for me to give back to football what football gave to me."
The goal is to prepare Black assistants for head-coaching opportunities across all collegiate levels and raise awareness among those hiring.
To do that, Locksley got on Zoom sessions and phone calls with university presidents, athletics directors, NFL head coaches, agents, search firms and minority assistants. Through all that, Locksley and the Coalition created an academy that helps place those minority assistants the Coalition believes are ready to become head coaches in mentorship programs with athletics directors.
The Coalition has also created training programs to help educate and empower coaches in key areas to advance their careers, and there is an annual convention that serves as a huge networking opportunity. In just over two years, the Coalition has tripled its membership to more than 1,000 coaches.
"When it comes to the college game, for us to be a two-year-old organization, we literally [have] probably 90% engagement from college ADs to college presidents to search firms that are hiring," Locksley said. "When these jobs first open, we are one of the few first phone calls they're making. In the academy, we pair coaches with athletic directors all across the country in the mentor-mentorship role. Over the years, they develop really strong relationships, and then you've got this guy calling on your behalf."
Considering there hasn't been a tangible increase in the number of Black head coaches, what does change look like to Locksley?
"Every year, if we get one more than what we had the previous year, we've done our job," Locksley said. "I learned from being under the umbrella of Nick Saban, the success won't be measured by the scoreboard. It's the process that you have. And I feel like we're putting together a pretty good process to help get some of these minority guys that are prepared and qualified to have opportunities in the near future."
-- Andrea Adelson
Mental health: Mark and Kym Hilinski, founders Hilinski's Hope Foundation
Through "Tyler Talks," Mark and Kym Hilinski have spoken at 150 universities across the country over the past three years, raising awareness and erasing stigmas about mental health to student-athletes, coaches and administrators. It's all part of the work they're doing with the Hilinski's Hope Foundation, which they started in 2018 after their son, Tyler, a quarterback for Washington State, died by suicide.
"We do it because we wish somebody had done it before," Mark Hilinski said. "I just wish that Tyler had the opportunity to hear somebody else's story."
"We tell the student-athletes ... if you don't know how to reach out for help, if you don't know how to start a conversation with your coach, with your parents, with your teammates, use Tyler's story," Kym Hilinski said. "What we've heard after we do these talks is that, 'I did what you asked me to do, Mrs. Hilinski. I went home and I told my mom about Tyler and then I told her about how I was struggling, too.'"
The Hilinskis have noticed an increase in conversations surrounding mental health and resources athletic departments are putting toward hiring counselors and mental health professionals since starting the foundation. NCAA legislation requires member schools to make mental health educational materials, services and resources available throughout the year, but there are no statistics that accurately track how many improvements have been made in this area.
In an NCAA survey of more than 9,800 student-athletes released in May 2022, 69% of female athletes and 63% of male athletes agreed or strongly agreed they know where to go on campus if they have mental health concerns. But when asked if they feel comfortable seeking support from a mental health provider on campus, less than half of the respondents said they agreed or strongly agreed with that statement.
Therein lies one of the biggest issues the Hilinskis have identified: While there are more resources, there remains hesitancy to seek help.
"Our athletes are taught to be strong," Kym Hilinski said. "Their sport requires so much of them, and a lot of them see reaching out for help, telling people that they're struggling with their mental health, as a weakness. We try so hard to get across to them that it's actually a strength if they ask for help."
"Tyler Talks" are a part of the Hilinski's Hope Game Plan, which provides a training program for mental health professionals, a facilitator handbook and team training created through a partnership with the NCAA Sports Science Institute and Prevention Strategies.
They have also created an online six-lesson package for student-athletes . Each lesson, about 20-30 minutes, goes in depth on the stigmas associated with mental health, what it's like to see a counselor or therapist,and how to help teammates who are suffering.
For the third straight year, the Foundation has asked schools to participate in College Football and Student Athlete Mental Health Week Oct. 1-8, coinciding this year with Mental Illness Awareness Week. The Hilinskis said they have over 100 schools committed to participating. In Year 1, they had 18.
The Hilinskis know there is plenty work left. This past academic year, multiple student-athletes died by suicide -- news that devastated the Hilinskis.
"Sometimes I ask myself, are we doing enough?" Kym Hilinski said. "What happened, why didn't they reach out for help? Then I talk to their parents and a lot of times the story is the same as ours. They had no idea that their child was struggling. A lot of them are very successful in their sport and they're happy and then one day they're gone."
The Hilinskis believe mental health education should begin earlier than college, and one of their goals is that mental health is taught the same as physical health.
"We think there's a lot of Tylers out there that are afraid to ask for help, for whatever reason -- we've got to clear that path, and sometimes that's saying it over and over again," Mark Hilinski said. "We sound like we're repeating ourselves, but we're talking about life and death."
Culture change: Brenda Tracy, founder Set the Expectation
Brenda Tracy's social media feeds can devolve quickly into a cesspool of hatred. She's all too aware of this, but it wasn't until the COVID-19 pandemic and those months spent away from her speaking tours and advocacy for victims of sexual violence that she realized how big a toll it had taken on her mental health.
"It was a pretty dark time for me," Tracy said. "I had to sit with all this trauma that I'd been dealing with. Not just my own, but other people's. And the death threats and the bullying and everything that comes with speaking out in a male-dominated space like football."
In 1998, Tracy was raped by four men, including three Oregon State football players. She spoke publicly about the incident for the first time in 2014, and she has spent much of the eight years since sharing her story in hopes of convincing coaches, athletes and administrators to take sexual assault seriously by adopting strict policies on sexual violence and prevention. She started a non-profit, Set the Expectation, to educate athletes, and she drafted The Tracy Rule, which serves as a template for how schools can create safer campuses.
Yet for all that work, Tracy wonders how much has changed.
"Everybody will say this stuff is bad, yeah," she said. "But is that what you really think, because we just paid Deshaun Watson a huge, guaranteed salary and there are no rules [about sexual violence] at the NCAA. So do we really think it's that bad?"
There has been progress, however. The NCAA is requiring schools to ask all prospective athletes about prior histories with sexual violence, though it doesn't prevent schools from still admitting offenders. Just two schools -- UTSA and UVA-Wise -- have adopted The Tracy Rule.
Still, Tracy wants to keep fighting, just in different ways.
"How do I scale the message and the work without it all requiring me to share my trauma over and over?" she said.
Before COVID-19, she was traveling up to 300 days a year -- that had to stop. She has encouraged athletes to become ambassadors for her work, including former Clemson lineman Tremayne Anchrum Jr. and former NC State defensive end James Smith-Williams, both now playing in the NFL.
She has created videos to share her story without requiring her to repeat the details of her assault, written educational material to help athletes better understand issues like mental health and consent and created digital curriculum schools can share with athletes without requiring Tracy to be on campus.
All the work can feel like a drop of water in the ocean when it comes to changing perspectives on sexual assault and violence against women, she said. But every drop matters.
"I know cultural change doesn't happen over night, but I have hope, and I believe it's not a matter of if but when," Tracy said. "I don't know what the future holds for me, but my hope lies within the athletes and the men I work with. When I look out into a crowd, I see future leaders and I think maybe they'll run these regulatory bodies one day and maybe they'll do something different."