On June 17, 2022, The Ohio State University announced it had surpassed 1,000 name, image, and likeness (“NIL”) deals during the first year of the policy’s existence. It was almost exactly one year prior—June 30, 2021—that the NCAA first suspended its NIL rules for student-athletes. That means that, on average, 2.7 NIL deals are signed every day with Ohio State athletes. Other powerhouse athletic programs—Georgia, Texas, Clemson, Southern California, Alabama, and all the others—cannot be far behind.
If you are not familiar with NIL, you are neither alone nor behind the times. It is a rapidly changing area where sports, education, law, politics, and fanaticism for one’s chosen college team intersect. At its most basic, “NIL” refers to a college student-athlete’s agreement to allow a third party—be that a car dealership, app developer, or energy drink producer—to use his or her name, image, or likeness to promote its brand.
Until last June, the NCAA did not permit any student-athletes to receive any compensation for the use of their names, images, or likenesses. That meant that, despite appearing on live, televised games, archived game footage, sports video games, and other media, student-athletes could not be compensated as their likenesses were used, and even though they did not give consent to their use. The change started several years before, when former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon famously sued the NCAA and, around the same time, former Nebraska and former Arizona State and Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller sued both the NCAA and Electronic Arts, Inc. (a video game company), alleging that the defendants violated the Sherman Antitrust Act and other state publicity statutes and common law doctrines.
When it was decided in 2015, O’Bannon did not result in a holding that students are entitled to payment for use of their NIL. In fact, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the NCAA’s rules prohibiting compensation were valid insofar as student-athletes were not entitled to up to $5,000 in deferred compensation for their NIL rights, to be paid after graduation. But the O’Bannon case was merely the first domino to fall, and when it did, it launched NIL rights into the wider college sports discourse.
State governments began to address the NIL debate. In 2019, California was the first state to pass legislation on this issue. California’s Fair Pay to Play Act provides that no postsecondary school, athletic conference, or organization with authority over collegiate athletics (i.e., the NCAA) may prevent a student-athlete from earning compensation for “the use of the student’s name, image, likeness, or athletic reputation.” At least 25 other states have since passed laws on the same issue, while at least three governors have issued executive orders on NIL rights (one of which became statutory law).
In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court decided NCAA v. Alston, in which current and former NCAA Division I football and basketball players again challenged the NCAA’s policies forbidding compensation under the Sherman Act. Though the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, Alston, like O’Bannon, did not itself hold that student-athletes must be allowed to received compensation for their NIL. Yet, after suffering two losses in federal court and watching state legislatures take action to promote student-athletes’ NIL rights, the NCAA voluntarily adopted a policy that suspended the prohibition against student-athletes earning compensation for their publicity rights.
The NCAA’s relaxation of its NIL policy was intended to allow student-athletes to earn money, aside from their scholarships, for their appearance in ads, at events, and the like. From the outset, the NCAA insisted it would nevertheless “preserve[ ] the commitment to avoid pay-for-play and improper inducements tied to choosing to attend a particular school.”
But in the intervening year since Alston was decided, the NCAA’s decision has resulted in a frenzy of activity over the past year that has blurred the lines between permissible NIL activity, pay-for-play, and recruitment. Millions of dollars’ worth of deals have been negotiated with student-athletes (at the University of Texas alone, more than 150 student-athletes have signed NIL deals that, in total, surpassed $2 million). Almost half of that amount is going to the school’s football players. Donor “collectives” have sprung up to fund NIL deals for students in the six- and seven-figures. Universities have enacted NIL policies in attempts to comply with both their NCAA obligations and state law. States, meanwhile, have reportedly changed their laws to permit these “collectives” to openly cooperate with universities and athletic departments in what may be an arms race for empowering their colleges to attract the most sought-after recruits. The potential legal issues are limitless.