NIL compensation for college athletes is here to stay

Courtesy of University of Minnesota Gable Steveson

College players can now earn money from endorsements, autographs, and appearances just like their pro counterparts. Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) is now part of college sport’s lexicon as a “transfer portal.”

Minnesota is among 13 states that have introduced NIL bills, but 27 states have similar bills, and six states had NIL laws that came into effect July 1. This essentially has been nearly a decade in the making since former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon successfully sued the NCAA for using his image on video games and won on the grounds that it violated antitrust laws in 2009.

The NCAA essentially had no choice but officially suspend its rules prohibiting athletes from selling their rights to their names, images, and likenesses, something the organization has fought hard against for decades.

Jackson State defensive end Antwan Owens reportedly was the first college player to sign a NIL deal shortly after midnight July 1 with a New York-based Black-owned hair product firm.  Four other JSU players also announced their deals as well.

U-M wrestler Gable Steveson signed with Gopuff, a home delivery service. “I can have quick groceries to the crib,” he told the MSR last week on why he went with this group as his first endorsement deal. “Everybody needs house needs and you don’t want to leave the house.”

“This is just the opening move in what is certain to be a long and involved process for the NCAA, student-athletes, and the institutions they play for. It is going to be pretty wild,” predicted intellectual property attorney J. Michael Keyes of Dorsey & Whitney in a printed statement.

Keyes has been following the NIL issue closely. “The possibilities [for student-athletes] are massive,” including promoting sports brands, launching their own merchandising, or sponsoring major sporting events “to drive participation and other sponsors. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this development,” he added.

“Nil” in soccer means no score, but NIL to the NCAA means perhaps the beginning of the end for the league’s hypocritical decades-long promoting of the antiquated amateurism model.

This comes on the heels of the June 21 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in NCAA v Alston, in which the justices said the organization violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by capping the value of athletic scholarships. Chief Justice Thomas Kavanaugh in his concurring opinion called out the NCAA’s business model: “The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student-athletes in innocuous labels . . . [Its] business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.”

“The Court understood that this was a labor issue,” said Ithaca College Sports Media Professor Ellen Staurowsky, a former college athletics director. “I think people are beginning to finally appreciate that the fact that there’s just such tremendous, unbridled self-interest on the part of [the] college sports industry itself. The amount of human carnage that has gone on because of the system that has been a business that has exploited its workforce and fundamentally ignored worker rights.”

She and others for several decades are longtime advocates for fair compensation of college athletes. Staurowsky wrote amicus briefs for both the O’Bannon and Alston cases in favor of the plaintiffs.

“The [college sport] industry we’re talking about today is vastly different than what it was in the 1960s and 1970s.  Frankly, I don’t think we’ve ever had an amateur system,” surmised the professor.

University of New Hampshire Law Professor Michael McCann told reporters, including the MSR, that the Supreme Court ruling, if anything, “is going to open the door for more litigation. I think the NCAA is going to have to think long and hard about what is its strategy going forward.”

Like it or not, the NCAA and others—the NIL is here to stay.