For years, talk of college athletics revolved around high-minded ideals like the love of sport and competition, not money. But that didn’t keep schools or their athletic conferences from making billions from players’ efforts. Now athletes are finally on the brink of profiting from their success, thanks to a wave of state laws taking effect soon. That’s set the clock ticking for Congress and the National Collegiate Athletic Association to roll out their own changes or risk letting others reshape the world of college sports.
On July 1, student athletes in at least six states—including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Texas—will be able to earn money by doing things such as marketing themselves on social media and selling autographs. The uneven spread of name, image, and likeness (NIL) legislation has drawn the ire of the NCAA, which argues that a jumble of state rules will sow confusion and create unfair advantages for schools in states where top athletes can be paid.
At the behest of the NCAA, a divided Congress is working to advance a federal law that would immediately establish national standards for all college athletes. However, given several competing congressional bills and disagreement over the scope of the proposals, the state-level rollouts may be the ones that establish the initial rules.
“We could be in a position where it’d be a lot less chaotic, but it’s the selfishness and inability to evolve and relinquish some control from college coaches, athletic directors, and presidents,” says Dave Ridpath, a college sports expert and past president of the Drake Group, an organization that says it aims to protect academic integrity from the corrosive influence of commercialized college sports.
The laws have spooked officials across the collegiate landscape, from coaches to recruiters to administrators. At a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on June 9, Mark Few, the men’s basketball coach at Gonzaga University, argued that a scattering of state-level NIL laws would make it impossible to run “competitive, fair championships.” He added: “Only action here by Congress can maintain some sort of semblance of a level playing field.”
Texas on June 14 became the latest state to pass a bill allowing athletes to be compensated by outside businesses for the use of their name and likeness. Others, including Arizona, California, and Michigan, will have NIL legislation take effect over the next two years. Still, swift action from the NCAA could result in a deal that leads to a national standard before the state rules kick in. The NCAA Division I Council is expected to vote on NIL legislation at its June 22-23 meeting. “The NCAA could at that meeting come up with a national standard,” Ridpath says. “I just don’t think the membership is going to be liberal enough to really give the athletes the control over their name, image, and likeness that they deserve.”
Whatever happens on the national level, student athletes in some states will soon be able to make thousands of dollars posting on Twitter and Instagram and signing autographs. Both University of Miami quarterback D’Eriq King and Florida State University quarterback McKenzie Milton have tweeted that players should have the right to profit from their name and likeness if they wish.
That’s where marketplaces like OpenSponsorship and Playbooked come in. The companies offer platforms that enable athletes to connect with marketing partners and brands. OpenSponsorship’s platform has facilitated more than $2.3 million in deals over the past year for thousands of professional athletes, taking a 20% cut from marketing deals. Playbooked, focused solely on college athletes, has had success with players in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), a group of small schools that last year agreed to allow its student athletes to be compensated.
The temptation to make big bucks sooner has already shaken up the world of basketball. A number of top high school prospects who want to forgo their college eligibility have chosen to play for the NBA’s G League Ignite, go overseas, or join new programs such as Overtime Elite, a league for young players. Bypassing college sports can sometimes result in a six- or seven-figure salary and success in the big leagues. Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball, the NBA’s Rookie of the Year, left high school early to play in Lithuania and Australia before joining the league. Teenagers Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga, who both played for the Ignite, are consensus top 5 picks for next month’s NBA draft.
“Eventually this will all be figured out. But there are going to be bumps, and this will be a dynamic process,” Ridpath says. “College sports are not minor league. They are major league, and it’s time to be less restrictive.”