By Thomas Calhoun
On July 1, 2021, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) approved a national interim policy that grants collegiate athletes the right to profit off of their name, image, and likeness regardless of whether or not that athlete’s residing state has an individual NIL law in place. The debate over whether college athletes should be paid or not has gone back and forth for decades now. While the new NIL policy does not allow collegiate athletes to be directly paid to play, it does allow them the opportunity to promote their brand and profit off of the hard work that they put in throughout their collegiate careers. As the NCAA is preparing to review the rules and regulations of the new NIL policy after its rookie year, let’s look back at the past eleven months to see how the NIL era is shaping college sports and what the NCAA should do moving forward.
First, let’s jump in and talk about a prominent collegiate NIL deal that made headlines and showed the positive effect the NIL policy has on collegiate athletes. In September of 2021, one of the most lucrative single-athlete partnerships that we saw was created around an 18-year-old gymnast named Olivia “Livvy” Dunne. Livvy is part of the LSU gymnastics team partnered with the extremely popular activewear brand, Vouri. The deal is speculated to be valued in the mid-six figures. Ultimately, the brand wanted to work with Dunne because they felt that the partnership would be authentic and would resonate well with her massive social media following. This was a groundbreaking deal in the collegiate marketplace and showed the rest of the nation how essential it is to build your own brand on and off the field or the competition floor. Dunne set the bar high for the rest of the NCAA athletes and was one of many athletes that helped open a path that was restricted for so many years. She sets the perfect example of what each athlete needs to and needs to do to market themselves the right way in order to become valuable to brands seeking ambassadors. In past years, this was only important for professional athletes, but Dunne showed that it is just as important for athletes coming out of high school as it is for going pro.
In addition to the NIL policy providing college athletes with opportunities to create their own wealth, we have also seen it influence how and where players are choosing to go to school. This is one of the drawbacks of the NIL policy since it entered into the playing field and it’s an extremely difficult aspect for the NCAA to regulate. Larger schools like Alabama or Notre Dame have larger boosters with more money to spend and better connections to provide their athletes with. For example, Phil Knight, the Founder of Nike is a graduate of Oregon and has helped create a company specifically geared towards helping Oregon student-athletes. Knight, along with many other Oregon donors created Division Street, Inc. to help athletes from their alma mater make the most out of the NIL market. This is just one example of how a larger athletic program is expanding the gap between the smaller programs in recruiting efforts.
Television exposure is another aspect that has always been a driving force for recruiting, but now that brands can create deals with athletes, they are naturally going to see more value in the players that have the most airtime. In a recent interview with 24/7 sports, Jackson State head coach and former NFL cornerback Deion Sanders said that “the NIL is starting to feel like a free-agency market where the highest bidder always comes out on top. I think players should be able to get paid, but I want my players to focus on making the NFL, not just the NIL.” While most coaches and athletic directors agree that their players should be able to get paid, the national consensus seems to be that the NCAA should cap the budget that brands can offer players.
While the NIL policy has created a national free market for NCAA collegiate athletes, there are still certain states that have limited the industries that athletes can and cannot partner within. For example, the bill passed in Arkansas restricts all athletes from interacting with certain industries such as tobacco and gambling. While this is a positive idea, as these are industries that should not be advertised by younger athletes, it still creates discrepancies from state to state. For example, states such as Delaware have no NIL policy restrictions whatsoever which can lead to confusion among athletes and interested brand partners. Thus, creating another potential recruiting hurdle for specific programs. Personally, I think the best way to minimize confusion and maximize equality would be to have the NCAA draw up regulations that all 50 states can vote on. Removing the government from the equation would provide a level playing field for college athletes’ endorsement deals.
So, what’s next and what can the NCAA do to make the NIL marketplace as fair as possible? As of right now, the only action brought to the NIL policy came just this past May. While it is not a change on paper, the NCAA issued a firm statement reminding boosters and shell companies (acting in the interest of boosters) that they are prohibited from contacting incoming athletes or their families. Boosters were never allowed to directly contact players, but the NCAA felt as though a reminder was necessary for this new landscape of the NIL policy. I think as the NCAA prepares to take this year into review, there is no doubt in my mind that they will enact and tighten the restrictions in regards to donors and brands when dealing with incoming high school athletes. I also think that there will be some sort of a monetary cap on sponsorship for all athletes. As I previously discussed, some schools offer better opportunities to their athletes than others - resulting in more lucrative deals. This has always been true but obviously heightened by NIL. No matter the opinions of the consumers of college sports at the end of this month, the NCAA will begin its review process and come July, we could be in for a whole new ball game.