by Dan Woog
Just days after a 2021 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) could not bar schools from offering education-related benefits to student-athletes, the college and high school sports landscape shifted dramatically.
Three new letters – NIL – became part of athletes’, coaches’ and booster clubs’ vocabulary. Suddenly, student-athletes gained much more control over their own “name, image and likeness.” They could earn money, and/or other benefits, from sports. For decades, fear of losing eligibility prohibited student-athletes from accepting even a free restaurant meal. Now they could post that meal on social media – and gorge themselves on a buffet of other freebies, far beyond the campus hangout.
NIL lifted the blanket restrictions. But a variety of entities could enact their own. The result today is a hodgepodge of rules, at both the college and high school levels. Some student-athletes can earn millions of dollars. Ohers still can’t make a penny.
And though eye-popping deals grab headlines – like LeBron James’ son Bronny, a Los Angeles high school student who's reportedly set to earn more than $7 million thanks to NIL deals with Nike and other companies – virtually all are limited to the two major revenue-producing sports: football and basketball.
Soccer players hoping to capitalize on their name, image and likeness are largely left out of the picture.
Those who do hope to get a deal must pursue it on their own. They come up with ideas, find sponsors, then market themselves on their own social media platforms.
Big-time programs like the University of Maryland men and University of North Carolina women might be expected to produce big-time NIL deals. Yet the reality is far different.
Veteran Terrapins coach Sasho Cirovski says that three of his players have signed small deals. Two received a bit of money for wearing (and posting about) Q-Collar (devices to prevent head injuries). One works with Gopuff, an online delivery service.
Maryland administrators are trying to bring all NIL deals under one roof. They would use a “collective”: a third-party business formed by boosters.
“Most coaches I know are frustrated by the way NIL operates, because it’s out of the purview of the athletic department and coaches,” Cirovski says. “So boosters are directly involved. They’re running the show. The intent of NIL is good – to allow players to make money off their brand – but the execution has to be brought in-house, with guardrails. It’s only a matter of time before we’ll see unintended consequences.”
UNC coach Anson Dorrance also speaks approvingly of the concept of NIL. But the coach of women soccer's most successful college program notes the challenge: “How do you corral the unscrupulous and unethical ones?”
He’s not referring only to businesses dangling deals in front of athletes.
In the recruiting process, Dorrance says, “Most soccer coaches are honorable and respectful. But coaches say whatever they want. They can use NIL as a real hook.”
Carolina’s legacy of success – and the type of player they recruit – makes NIL promises unnecessary, he notes.
Though most young athletes are navigating the NIL world on their own, entrepreneurs like Michelle Meyer offer help. A former volleyball player at the UC Santa Barbara, and one of the first full-time NIL administrators (at San Diego State University) who played club soccer growing up, she realized the Supreme Court ruling would usher in “the biggest change in college sports since Title IX.” She founded NIL Network, a resource for student-athletes, parents and administrators.
“Being given cars is not a reality for 99% of the athletes – especially in non-revenue generating sports,” Meyer says.
And of the opportunities that are available, “99% are at the local or regional level.” Two examples: a restaurant in a college town that pays someone to post photos while eating there, and camps or clinics using local athletes.
However, she adds, “99% of college athletes are not prepared” to take advantage of their name, likeness or brand.
“They’re asking, ‘Where’s my money?’” Meyer says. Her question is: “Where’s your platform?” She believes female student-athletes are better than males at taking advantage of NIL. “They’re more intentional about building brand strategy, not just jumping at the first opportunity.”
High school athletes in general understand the new environment better than their college counterparts, she says. They realize NIL is a great way to grow and develop their own entrepreneurial skills.
Meyer will have plenty of opportunities herself, working with administrators as well as students. Beyond the Power Five conferences, she says, most college have not yet addressed NIL. Some do not even have clear policies for athletes and boosters to follow.
It’s the same at the scholastic level. Each state has its own high school athletic association; each has addressed (or not) NIL its own way. Twelve prohibit student-athletes from monetizing their NIL; 26 permit it (usually with restrictions, such as banning associations with gambling, tobacco, cannabis, illegal substances, adult entertainment, firearms and the like). The others are still examining the issue. (A comprehensive list of all 50 state policies can be found HERE
Jason Pendleton has seen the NIL issue from many perspectives. He coaches high school boys and girls at Mill Valley High School in Shawnee, Kansas, is an assistant women’s coach at the University of Central Missouri, and serves as executive director for the KC Fusion club.
At colleges generally, he sees some athletes receiving not money, but “gifts in kind,” like shoes and sweatshirts. Like Meyer, he sees women being more proactive than men.
At the high school level, he has an up-close-and-personal look: His son Nico is an academy-turned-high school player at Mill Valley who worked a deal with a local trainer. He does not charge the teenager; in return, Nico promotes videos of the training on social media.
Nico committed last fall to Marquette University. NIL was not part of the recruiting process. Based on his high school experience, though, will he have opportunities during his college career?
That’s yet to be determined. As is so much else, in the NIL world.