NCAA lifts athlete endorsement rules as states scramble to court players
Now, schools are leveraging their business school faculty to coach athletes on their taxes and finances to keep pace, while others stand ready to help players build their brand on social media.
“There is definitely going to be an arms race around this,” said former Rep. Tom McMillen, who heads the LEAD1 Association trade group representing athletic directors competing in the top tier of college football. “Our ADs are worried that they don’t want to get behind in the race, and they’re going to do everything they can to try to keep up with the Joneses.”
Schools in the college sports engines of Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas can each kick off similar student-athlete compensation plans by July 1. Colleges in Arizona, Nebraska and Oklahoma also have the go-ahead to start their own programs. These laws set the stage for higher stakes recruiting and move the NCAA from the field to the sidelines while students chase potentially lucrative opportunities.
A patchwork of policies between schools and states could spark a chaotic start to the fall season just as the NCAA pressures Congress to settle potential inconsistencies with a federal law. NCAA officials voted on Wednesday to suspend strict association rules and allow schools to follow the path many states are already on, freeing up incoming and current students to pursue deals in states without compensation laws.
“This is an important day for college athletes since they all are now able to take advantage of name, image and likeness opportunities,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement.
“With the variety of state laws adopted across the country, we will continue to work with Congress to develop a solution that will provide clarity on a national level,” he said. “The current environment — both legal and legislative — prevents us from providing a more permanent solution and the level of detail student-athletes deserve.”
A string of states across the South and Midwest have made clear they don’t plan to get left behind in this new era, and openly challenged longtime NCAA rules to keep up with their rivals.
“Everyone has really made a point that for Ohio to be competitive, we need to get this now,” Republican Gov. Mike DeWine said Monday as he signed an executive order allowing athletes to profit off their “name, image and likeness” rights. “We need to let everybody know that Ohio’s in the game, Ohio’s going to stay in the game, and we’re moving forward.”
Big-time programs are deep into preparing for this new kind of business.
The University of Alabama has partnered with CLC, an Atlanta-based trademark licensing company and the Game Plan college athlete education software company to help Crimson Tide players build their personal brands. Students will also get help maximizing their social media following and setting up ways to disclose the deals they eventually strike.
Auburn University, Alabama’s Iron Bowl rival, is leveraging its business school faculty to teach athletes about brand management, taxes and finance. The school’s also expanding its deal with the Birmingham-based INFLCR software and media company to help players connect with commercial opportunities.
Ohio State University is partnering with Opendorse, a company founded by two former standout Nebraska football players, on a program that promises to offer each of the school’s athletes live consultation sessions and brand-building resources. Opendorse is also working with the University of Nebraska, University of Illinois and other schools on their respective NIL efforts, too.
“Speaking frankly, this is a recruiting issue,” Ohio Republican state Sen. Niraj Antani told reporters this week. “We want our teams to win. And that’s not just the Ohio State football team. It is also about Cleveland State basketball. It is about the University of Cincinnati swimming team. This is about every student-athlete and every team in Ohio.”
The NCAA has spent at least two years laboring over detailed and restrictive rules for how roughly 1,200 schools and athletics conferences should allow players groundbreaking rights to make money from endorsements or cashing in their social media fame.
That plan would’ve enacted limits, including prohibitions on athletes using school logos or trademarks in their product pitches. Schools and athletics conferences would’ve been barred from getting involved, and athlete relationships with outside agents or advisers would’ve been subject to some form of regulation.
Athletic administrators and university leaders who approve NCAA policies instead shelved much of that work this week. Planned votes to enact the policy earlier this year were delayed amid scrutiny from the Justice Department and an ensuing high court loss over payments related to an athlete’s education.
The solution: A temporary halt to the NCAA’s strict bans on player endorsements, at least until federal legislation or an updated association rule emerges.
The NCAA’s colleges and universities now have broad authority to chart their own policies. In states that have passed player endorsement laws with later effective dates, or no statutes of their own, schools will have to face new possibilities, or headaches, for athletes and administrators.
NCAA athletes in states without marketing laws can seek out business opportunities. And colleges and universities in states that do have laws have been left responsible to determine if their players are behaving legally. NCAA prohibitions on “pay for play” and “improper inducements” tied to recruiting athletes to attend a particular institution still remain in effect.
“Schools are doing what they’ve always done: trying to figure out how to get a competitive edge,” said Amy Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission college sports reform organization.
“Now it really is a question of whether university presidents and conference commissioners will be willing to lead on important issues,” Perko said, “or whether they continue to try to maintain the new status quo by just kind of tinkering to meet the demands of the current model.”
Meanwhile, some players are already striking out on their own.
The University of Iowa unveiled its athlete marketing program last week, even as a state college player publicity rights law remains under discussion. But Jordan Bohannon, a redshirt senior guard on the Hawkeyes men’s basketball team who helped lead protests against the NCAA’s rules this year, is fielding calls from potential business partners.
“I’m ecstatic,” Bohannon said in an interview as he prepared to file paperwork to start his own clothing apparel company, J3O, on July 1. “This is going to be very profitable for some of these athletes across the country, especially some with large social media followings.”
Bohannon said he’s also having discussions about possibly bringing in paid sponsors onto his sports podcast and promoting both a local nightclub and axe-throwing bar.
“I don’t know if I’ll do well at all,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to marketing myself.”