The NCAA spent years warning anyone who would listen that allowing athletes to collect payment for the use of their name, image, or likeness would bring about a college sports doomsday. Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, said in 2019 that NIL rights posed an “existential threat” to college athletics. But on Wednesday, one day before a smattering of laws in both red and blue states that grant athletes NIL rights took effect, the association threw in the towel. It’s adopting what it insists is an “interim” national policy allowing NIL payments to athletes while it awaits congressional help that may never come. This move opens the door for college athletes to profit from endorsements, their signatures, public appearances, and any other legal money-making venture (save for a few) off the field for the first time in more than a century. This time, Emmert called it “an important day for college athletes.”
The first day of college athlete name, image, and likeness payments appears to have gone … pretty well? The world kept spinning on its axis, which is itself a rebuke to Emmert. And if any athlete came up with an endorsement deal that seemed likely to shake college sports to its core (not that doing so would necessarily be a bad thing), I haven’t been able to find it.
At midnight on Thursday, a handful of athletes unveiled the first endorsement deals by active athletes in modern NCAA history. Jackson State defensive end Antwan Owens signed a deal with hair product business 3 Kings Grooming, Sports Illustrated reported, while Fresno State basketball twins Hanna and Haley Cavinder partnered with Boost Mobile at nearly the same time. It’s notable that some of the first NIL deals went to an HBCU football player and two Mountain West women’s basketball players: A common though dubious talking point against NIL rights has been that most payments would go to male athletes in power conferences. More likely, NIL payments will mildly level a playing field the NCAA has tilted toward men.
Other athletes declared themselves open for business with less of a spotlight. Marshall linebacker Will Ulmer is a country singer and guitarist who used to do his shows either for free or under the alias “Lucky Bill” because he wasn’t allowed, he said, to promote his shows under his own name. Now, he can. (Technically, college athletes were previously allowed to collect payment for outside work as long as it was completely unrelated to their athletic careers. But that proved to be a delicate line, and many schools came to discourage it altogether.)
Elsewhere, LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne plastered her TikTok profile on a billboard in New York City; Dunne stands to now profit immensely from her 5 million combined followers on TikTok and Instagram, the largest of any active college athlete. A Nebraska volleyball player signed up with a volleyball apparel company. An Iowa basketball player is signing some autographs over the Fourth of July weekend. A Tennessee wide receiver did an Instagram post on behalf of his high school buddy’s home loan company. Some Michigan football players are going to get paid to play video games, putting them in league with lots of other people who now get paid to do that. Auburn’s QB shilled some Southern tea, and Louisville’s QB has made himself available via a $300 hourly appearance fee.* That public appearance business is being managed by Dreamfield, a new company instantly launched Thursday by two other college quarterbacks, at Florida State (McKenzie Milton) and Miami (D’Eriq King). Milton and King are charging $2,000 an hour for their own appearances, but that’s a fraction of what Ole Miss QB Matt Corral is asking for: $10,000 an hour. Those prices may seem high, but they are still quite a bit less than these players generate for their universities every time they put on shoulder pads on a Saturday afternoon.
Then there’s Trey Knox and his very good boy Blue, who are cashing in together.
It hardly feels like the Wild West. In part, that’s because schools and the NCAA still exert a lot of control over their athletes. The NCAA says NIL payments can’t be used as “recruiting inducements,” meaning the association is still attempting to keep athletes from exercising an economic right (to get paid to be somewhere) that most people can exercise freely. But some schools appear eager to dance around that restriction, instead spending Thursday marketing themselves as NIL-friendly. LSU, for one, put up its own snazzy New York City advertisement, billing itself in Times Square as NILSU.
There’s nothing at all stopping a coach, athletic director, or compliance official from discouraging athletes from taking certain kinds of endorsement deals, and state NIL laws typically have specific prohibitions, too. The University of Florida’s NIL policy for athletes is an instructive example: They’re banned from partnering with companies in the booming sports gambling industry, must disclose their partnerships to the school (something that’s prescribed in Florida’s law), and can’t enter into contracts with durations longer than their athletic eligibility at Florida (for reasons that aren’t clear). BYU is requiring athlete NIL deals to match up with the school’s rigorous honor code. It has banned athletes from partnering with companies in alcohol, tobacco, gambling, adult entertainment, and, uh, coffee. In short, college athletes still have fewer rights than you or I do, and that’s before approaching the issue of schools not sharing athletic revenue.
By this point, the NCAA has few defenders. It has even fewer on the name, image, and likeness issue, which might now be the topic of the most bipartisan consensus in American politics. But various analysts and advocates for the status quo raised all sorts of complaints about what NIL payments would mean for college sports. They’d create Title IX compliance issues, some said, or they’d lead to some athletes “driving around in Ferraris” while others couldn’t make ends meet. They’d drain money from schools with multibillion-dollar endowments, which would suddenly have to compete with their own athletes for advertising dollars. (The schools, which are still pocketing the spoils of multibillion-dollar TV deals without athletes getting a cent of them, will be OK.) Or maybe NIL payments would make recruiting unfair, perhaps leading the best players to congregate at a small handful of schools, something that already happens.
It’s not that there aren’t questions to resolve. It’s only been a day, and the NIL market might find itself ripe for exploitation like so much of college sports. It’s worth closely watching the third-party companies that have positioned themselves between athletes and potential advertisers. It’s worth wondering, as ESPN radio host and former Notre Dame offensive lineman Mike Golic Jr. did, if schools will help their athletes understand the tax consequences of NIL deals to make sure they don’t wind up with end-of-year liabilities they can’t pay. Recruiting might indeed become more of a mess, although it is already a mess, because a system where schools don’t pay their labor encourages black markets as a routine matter.
But the burden of proof that name, image, and likeness payments would destroy college sports, rather than strengthen them, was always on the NCAA and its remaining allies. The right to profit off oneself is natural, and most people never needed the NCAA to grant it to them. Now that the NCAA has done so at gunpoint, college sports—and most importantly, the athletes—seem to be doing just fine. The only doomsday in sight is for whatever shreds remained of the NCAA’s credibility before now.
Correction, July 1, 2021: This post originally misspelled Louisville.