There has never been another college athlete like Hunter Woodhall.
At the University of Arkansas, he earned all-American status as a sprinter for a highly ranked track team. Woodhall, 22, who was raised in a small Utah town, achieved this as a double amputee. When he was an infant, doctors surgically removed his lower legs, just below the knees. They told his parents that he would never walk.
Instead, wearing sleek prosthetic blades, he became an athlete who could hold his own while racing shoulder to shoulder with some of the fastest runners in the world. In 2017, he earned an N.C.A.A. Division I scholarship, becoming the first double amputee to do so. In March 2020, he anchored Arkansas’s 4×400-meter relay team to a win that helped give the Razorbacks the team title at the Southeastern Conference indoor championships. At the Tokyo Paralympics this summer, he will be a favorite to take home gold in the 400 meters.
Not too bad a story. Even Ellen DeGeneres noticed and put him on her TV show.
We’re heading toward the end of March Madness, where the N.C.A.A. airs self-promotional ads throughout its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments via the organization’s $8.8 billion multiyear broadcast deal. Such commercials extol the character of its athletes, a useful trick to quell critics aiming fire at college sports for taking advantage of what is essentially an unpaid work force.
Hunter Woodhall’s story of perseverance would make great television.
But the N.C.A.A. can’t lean on Woodhall. Why? In January, frustrated with the organization’s inability to change with the times, he quit running collegiate track and turned professional. He had worked himself into a position where he no longer needed college sports the way they needed him.
The N.C.A.A. needs to pretty itself up for a powerful audience that holds the key to its future. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s nine justices will hear arguments in a case examining whether the N.C.A.A. violates antitrust law by putting a tight lid on the benefits its sports stars can receive from schools.
After winning a silver and bronze medal at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, Woodhall began parlaying his fame into a huge Instagram following and became part of a bold new wave of college athletes who are opening up nearly every aspect of their lives on social media — the good, the bad and the utterly goofy. Their approach is far different from the sanitized imagery exported to the world through the N.C.A.A.’s high-gloss ads.
“I was just experimenting and having fun and growing it slowly at first,” Woodhall told me recently, speaking from a newly purchased home near the university campus in Fayetteville, Ark. “But then the whole thing just sort of took off.”
Looking at Woodhall’s posts, one can see why he is a sensation. He is tall, handsome and full of an endearingly earnest, lighthearted energy. He speaks from the heart about overcoming the challenge of his disability, always with self-deprecating humor.
In a TikTok video viewed close to six million times, Woodhall quickly explains his life story, starting with the amputations 11 months after he was born. “I swear everyone in comments is saying my legs got bit off by a shark, or that I got hit by like 17 buses,” he says, looking into the camera with a glint in his eye. “So here is my actual story.”
Woodhall and his girlfriend, Tara Davis, a University of Texas track star, have their own YouTube channel, where viewers can follow the couple as they navigate their long-distance relationship.
Woodhall has over 3.1 million social media followers across various platforms. Those numbers have him poised to bring in significant income from sponsored posts and pay from the social media channels, possibly as much as $800,000 a year, according to an estimate by Opendorse, a social media consulting firm that tracks the brand value of athletes and advises them on how to use online technology as a boost.
The N.C.A.A., of course, has long had strict restrictions prohibiting its competitors from earning money from their fame. The institution had promised to loosen those rules — no doubt because it was pushed into a corner by looming court battles, by the many states that have passed laws demanding such change and by threats from several members of Congress to even more strenuously check N.C.A.A. power. But the N.C.A.A. backtracked in January, saying it needed to defer easing its grip for a later date.
Woodhall had seen enough.
“I got so tired of waiting, tired of their hypocrisy,” he told me of his decision to turn pro even though he had a year of eligibility left. “It was not worth staying to chase a national title so they could use my name and my story to promote themselves. I simply had enough.”
Woodhall will spend his time training for the Paralympics while reaping the rewards of being an internet influencer, paid in full. He said he makes roughly $7,500 per post and that it’s not hard to produce 10 each month.
Tack on earnings paid by social media sites for bringing in viewers, the windfall from athletic gear sponsorship deals that he is poised to sign and income from a clothing company he co-owns, and he seems to be doing pretty well without running track under the forbidding eye of the N.C.A.A.
Woodhall’s internet-based income may well be the future of collegiate sports.
“Athletes like Hunter are bona fide celebrities to the TikTok and YouTube generation,” said Blake Lawrence, the former Nebraska linebacker who is now the chief executive of Opendorse. “People over age 30 might not realize it, but to the generation raised on these social media platforms, these athletes, they’re the ones who have the clout.”
One of the arguments against allowing collegians to make money off their renown is that the popular male players in the biggest sports — football and basketball — will reap most of the benefits. But of the 30 college athletes with the top social media followings, just over half come from nonrevenue sports like track, tennis and wrestling, Lawrence said. And many are women.
For now, barring across-the-board rule changes that affect all of college sports, these competitors are leaving plenty of cash on the table as they wait to see if anything changes.
So far, those who control college sports have been able to subdue drives for unionization by players, and any other form of mass protest by the athletes.
But increasingly, social media is giving college athletes the freedom to more comfortably stand up to the N.C.A.A. and make the kinds of demands expected from any long-neutered work force. The N.C.A.A. tournaments have been prime time for their agitating.
Oregon center Sedona Prince used a social media video to shame the N.C.A.A. into improving the woefully inadequate training facilities for teams at the women’s tournament. Rutgers guard Geo Baker said players from his team and Clemson’s talked about staging a protest by delaying their first-round tournament game as part of a budding, player-led #NotNCAAproperty movement.
But they didn’t protest, partly because they feared backlash. Right now, college athletes don’t feel secure enough to take such a bold stand. They don’t have the power.
How much longer will this be the case?
Not long, Woodhall predicted. “Power will shift,” he said, as athletes increase their use of platforms such as social media to grow not just their influence but their bank accounts.
“Times are changing,” he added, “whether the N.C.A.A. likes it or not.”