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Empowering Student-Athletes: Aztec Alumni Rally to Find NIL Solution

Gema Deleon

Apr 7, 2023

San Diego State University has a proud tradition of athletics success.

San Diego State University has a proud tradition of athletics success and has most recently seen a wave of support from the local community due in part to significant initiatives like SDSU Mission Valley, the opening of Snapdragon Stadium, and the men’s basketball team’s run in the 2023 NCAA Tournament.

But as with any journey, the road to success has not been without a few bumps. One of the most recent came in 2021 when the NCAA’s approval of Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) of student-athlete compensation forced a wave of change in college athletics departments nationwide. With this new reality, long-time supporters of SDSU athletics realized that something needed to be done to ensure SDSU student-athletes could continue to compete at a high level.

“For those that were watching and seeing the immediate response by supporters of other universities, regardless of any general early opinions on NIL, there was a genuine concern about how this would impact Aztec athletics and what needed to be done to ensure our teams remained competitive,” said Jeff Smith (‘94). “MESA evolved from those early concerns and questions.”

Smith is one of the founding members of MESA Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit which stands for Mentoring and Empowering Student-Athletes. He and a group of Aztec alumni including Tom Newton (‘89), Jason Tetley (‘94), Peter Elia (‘93), business leaders, and former student-athletes like DJ Gay (‘11) created the foundation to directly address the challenges associated with NIL and support SDSU student-athletes.

NIL, A Different Way

From the beginning, Smith, who currently serves as president of the nonprofit, and the MESA Foundation team engaged the SDSU Athletics department and coaches in conversations to see what their group of passionate fans and supporters could do to help.

And in the fall of 2022, the MESA Foundation was born.

But in this new world where student-athletes were now getting paid, the MESA Foundation wanted to take a different approach. They looked at what has historically made SDSU strong on and off the court – community and team. Sticking to these core principles, MESA adopted the “team first” mentality that coaches Steve Fisher and Brian Dutcher brought to the SDSU men’s basketball program in 1999 and built a structure that compensates athletes for their involvement in local charities and community events. “MESA and our version of a NIL answer is all about student-athletes supporting our community, the heart, and soul of SDSU,” said Smith.

All MESA athletes are paid equally, and all the money raised goes directly to the student-athletes.

The Impact

From the time it started, the MESA Foundation, which has a volunteer-based board with one part-time admin, has been hard at work directly connecting participating student-athletes with local charities and nonprofits. Board members put in hundreds of hours a month outside of their regular jobs to support the foundation. MESA provides its student-athletes with a minimum number of appearances and social media posts that help bring awareness to the various causes. The money raised through the foundation contributed by Aztec supporters allows MESA to compensate the student-athletes for their involvement. In the foundation’s first year, SDSU student-athletes have supported the Walk for ALS, The San Diego Food Bank, have hosted a youth clinic at San Dieguito Boys and Girls Club, and have upcoming clinics scheduled for military children at Camp Pendleton and another youth basketball camp with local Native American tribes through InterTribal Sports Program.

Much of the day-to-day responsibilities of the MESA foundation focus on educating the Aztec community on the realities of NIL and the compensation options that student-athletes have now due to its introduction.

What has been the feedback from the student-athletes? Gratitude. In addition to the financial support provided by the MESA Foundation to help cover expenses like the cost of living, the foundation says they have received genuine appreciation from the students for the opportunity to get to know the Aztec community on a level that did not exist before NIL.

In December of 2022, MESA, which launched with a focus on SDSU’s men’s basketball team, expanded its support to SDSU women’s basketball. The MESA Foundation is hopeful that with a growing base of supporters they will be able to further its relationship with other Aztec women’s sports teams.

Proud Aztec Alumni

Smith graduated from SDSU in 1994 and is a proud Aztec For Life. He met many of his best friends at SDSU and is currently the principal at Associates Equity Funds.

Smith has been a dedicated supporter of his alma mater. He and his family have been going to Aztec games together for the past twenty years, have been season ticket holders for SDSU men’s basketball for the past fifteen years, and he has served as a member of the Director’s Cabinet for the past ten. Smith is due to have another Aztec in the family when his son, a graduating high school senior, enrolls as a freshman this fall.

Like a lot of Aztecs, Smith has a “chip on the shoulder” about graduating from SDSU. “We know how great SDSU is and that San Diego is likely the best city to live in and go to school in the country, but we don’t get the same credits and accolades as a lot of other schools do,” he said. “We take pride in how successful our alumni are and how successful our athletic teams are.”

In this new chapter with the MESA Foundation, Smith says it’s been challenging to pinpoint the most rewarding part. “So much of it has been rewarding,” he said. “I suppose I would say getting to know the players as people, not just student-athletes, and watching them be part of our community efforts. Basketball ends, but the growth that they are experiencing as young men and women will truly impact them for the rest of their lives.”

A Positive Force for San Diego

The MESA Foundation is intent on turning NIL into a positive force for the community and SDSU. The foundation’s most immediate priority is to share the work they are doing with the entire Aztec community so that there is a better understanding of NIL and how it impacts college athletics programs and their student-athletes. Their latest project is a first-of-its-kind mobile trivia app called “Big Heart Trivia,” a game that allows Aztec supporters to play a free daily trivia contest with the daily prize being shared between the winners’ pool and SDSU student-athletes.

The foundation believes its approach to fundraising through a charity model is a “win-win” for all involved. “MESA is not NIL, but really just a group of Aztecs that understand this dilemma and are committed to making sure we build something that answers this reality and that the entire Aztec community understands and supports.”

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