Across NCAA Division I, II, and III colleges, student-athletes are now allowed and encouraged to take part in NIL deals. NIL - Name, Image, and Likeness - is, in its simplest definition, a way for college athletes to monetize their success and popularity.
Up until July 21st, 2021, this was illegal and seen as a violation of NCAA rules and regulations. Because these college student-athletes were seen as ‘amateur’ athletes, cashing in any sort of compensation for their on (or off) field success was prohibited.
While the restrictions vary from state to state, in general, athletes can now engage in NIL deals such as autographs, appearances, camps and clinics, social media posts, and advertisement campaigns. For reference, the top three highest paid athletes this past year included Bryce Young from the University of Alabama, C.J. Stroud of The Ohio State University, and Caleb Williams of the University of Southern California. According to Action Network, they earned $3.2 million, $2.5 million, and $2.4 million, respectively.
The case for NIL compensation
Many people think that student-athletes should receive some type of compensation for their capabilities and hard work. After all, the average cost to attend a public university for one year is $25,500; a private college costs even more, averaging at $53,200, and according to ESPN, less than 60% of Division I (D1) athletes receive athletic scholarships, and a majority of these are only partial.
In 2019, 24% of D1 athletes reported that they were food insecure at least once. For reference, in 2020 alone, the University of Alabama Athletics program profited over $16.1 million. It’s striking that food insecurity would be a reality within the ranks of college athletes, but then again, not all programs rake in millions of dollars.
What about student-athletes taking on part-time jobs? A 2011 NCAA survey showed that football players spent 43.4 hours weekly on their sport, while men’s and women’s basketball players spent 39.2 and 37.6 hours, respectively.
Drawbacks of emerging policies and tradeoffs to consider
In general, NIL deals currently have no regulations regarding which student-athletes obtain deals and which do not. For instance, one player on a team can be making millions of dollars, while a non-starter who still attends every practice, workout, and game can be making zero. Some players are even making more money annually than some of their coaches. This can affect the chemistry and dynamics of a team, which has proven to be a vital factor of success (when success is defined as a winning record).
Also, NIL regulations vary from state to state, making it difficult for student-athletes to keep up with the rules that they must follow. Because of this, it’s easy for athletes to mess up; any slip or deviance from the playbook can result in a forfeit of eligibility.
Student-athletes already face many pressures, and NIL arrangements can add additional stress. Student-athletes are more likely to encounter eating disorders, substance abuse, and social anxiety than other students. According to recent studies, 33% of all college students encounter a sort of severe depression or other anxiety, and only 10% of student-athletes in that percentage actually seek the help that they may need to recover. These are the repercussions of an everyday athlete. Adding another source of stress like making a perfect post for a brand deal or appearing for numerous autograph sessions will only compound issues like depression, anxiety, or even fatigue related injuries.
What is the game plan moving forward?
Firstly, caps on pay can maintain a level of integrity between the team and coaches. While cashing in on popularity can aid in many student’s lives, there comes a point where it ruins a team dynamic. Forming opportunities for in and out of classroom learning is an opportunity for student-athletes to be in a 24/7 learning environment. Teaching student-athletes how to regulate their NIL deals and statuses would serve as lessons in finances, business, and marketing tools. Being their own agent of sorts would also train student-athletes rule following skills, time management, and organization. Lastly, broader stipends for student-athletes to ensure all athletes’ basic needs are met is a necessary course of action. This could include stipends that would cover meals, rent, gas, textbooks, or other basic necessities that a student without a job would need money to buy.
Policy improvements and recommendations
Efforts are underway to clarify some of the improvements outlined above. For instance, in November 2022, the NCAA D1 Board of Directors unanimously approved a new set of guidelines intended to define how existing NCAA rules intersect with the organization’s interim policy for NIL activities. The guidelines clarify the kinds of education and monitoring that schools can and should be implementing to support student-athletes, how institutions can inform student-athletes about potential NIL opportunities (and what they cannot do), how athletics personnel can engage with NIL collectives, and which enforcement considerations to weigh. With the NIL landscape becoming a bit clearer as a result of these new guidelines, states like Florida are undertaking legislative revisions to laws enacted at the outset of the NIL opportunity. Under the 2020 Florida law, colleges and universities and their employees are barred from causing ‘compensation to be directed’ to student-athletes. Under the NCAA’s interim policy, “schools can inform student-athletes about potential NIL opportunities and can work with an NIL service provider to administer a ‘marketplace’ that matches student-athletes with those opportunities.” Given this new opportunity, the original NIL state laws may be up for revision.
The NIL landscape continues to rapidly evolve, and it will be important for current and prospective student-athletes, their parents, athletics and institutional personnel, state legislators, and other stakeholders to pay close attention to the unfolding regulatory process. A variety of NIL resources are available on the NCAA’s website for those seeking additional information. While the monetization of student-athlete success isn’t altogether negative, close attention must be paid to their academic success, mental well-being, and other important factors to ensure the NIL process can serve as a springboard to success after their college playing days are over.
Catherine A. Romaine is an Integrated Marketing Communications major at the University of Mississippi with a minor in Higher Education Administration who will graduate in May 2023. Ms. Romaine wrote a policy brief on the NIL landscape during the Fall 2022 semester in Dr. Brent Marsh’s EDHE 351: Organization & Policy course. In addition to instructing the course, Dr. Marsh serves as Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs & Dean of Students at the University of Mississippi. He currently serves as member-at-large on the NASPA Public Policy Division leadership team and previously served as Division Director from 2019-2021.