NIL is a long time coming, but still more work to do

Feds need to step in at some point to settle interstate conundrums

Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, is hoping for a federal standard when it comes to NIL.
Rep. Colin Allred, D-Texas, is hoping for a federal standard when it comes to NIL.
Image: Getty Images

College athletes finally being able to make money from their name, image, and likeness (NIL) obviously is a huge step forward after decades of outright exploitation under the guise of the NCAA maintaining a standard of amateurism. There still are more steps to take, given the amount of money that universities take in from athletics while distributing zero of those dollars to the people who make them that money, but it’s a good start.

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It’s also, in these early stages, chaotic. Laws on college athletes’ NIL rights vary from state to state, which means a lot of confusion, both for athletes who want to cash in, and for the companies who want to pay them. The latter tend to get overlooked, but it’s an important aspect here: there are many small businesses in college towns and beyond for whom an athlete’s endorsement would go a long way.

One such business is Indianapolis-based Homefield Apparel, which makes and sells T-shirts and hoodies with vintage collegiate logos. Homefield is in the middle of adding schools to its collection, but at this point, founder and CEO Connor Hitchcock is wary of getting too into NIL partnerships because of the ambiguous legal status of doing such deals across state lines. Not all companies have been so cautious, which could be more troublesome for the athletes they court than for them, but Hitchcock wants to do it right.

“The biggest potential issue is the lack of unified laws across states when it comes to NIL, for us,” Hitchcock said, noting that Homefield would have loved to have partnered with Minnesota football players for its Gophers launch last weekend, but held off. “So right now, we are only contacting athletes at Indiana University because we are based in Indiana and [the state] actually handed down guidance that was very easy for us to figure out, within Indiana, what we can do. So, we just want to make sure all of the other places, where we really want to support and work with student athletes. I don’t know if they’re going to make a federal law yet, or if it would be as much the government compiling a database of state-by-state laws, but I do think if there are legal parameters, something federal would be very helpful.”

As you’ll remember from high school history class, the Constitution gives Congress the power and responsibility to regulate interstate commerce. When it comes to laying down national ground rules for NIL, it’s important not only for a company like Homefield that does business with schools from coast to coast, but also for athletes who go to an out-of-state school, or simply play in a multi-state metropolitan area, like Memphis sitting on a border with both Mississippi and Arkansas. Even just one-offs for events pose a conundrum, like what happens if a Dallas business wants to do a deal with an Oklahoma football player to appeal to the area’s Sooner alums ahead of the Red River Shootout?

Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas) knows these issues better than probably any member of Congress, having played collegiately at Baylor, then as a linebacker for the Tennessee Titans. In college, he remembers playing the NCAA Football video game as himself — “they had a linebacker on there, number 34, from Dallas, 6-foot-2, 238, all of my measurements,” — but of course never seeing a dime from being the Bears’ featured player in the game. Allred now represents a district in the Dallas area, so between his football and Congressional experience, he’s keenly aware of the Texas-Oklahoma dynamic.

“You can think of the star athlete from Texas who goes to Oklahoma, and maybe, you know, the small town where he’s from in Texas, maybe a local car dealership or something, wants him for a sponsorship, but then they are put off since they don’t know how it’s going to interact with Oklahoma state law, and that’s a real consideration,” Allred told Deadspin. “The complexity that it introduces, having just kind of a patchwork, I think is a headache for the universities because they also have to help these kids navigate this and they’re going to try and set up their own compliance systems around this.

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“It’s a headache for small businesses that [the athletes] want to engage, and, you know, for interstate activity. There’s really no good argument why we should have a state-by-state patchwork instead of having a federal standard. These athletes, their images, their work, their skill were already being used to sell products in so many different ways. They just weren’t ever seeing any of that income from it, and they were really the only athletes in the country you can say that about.”

Allred wants to get a federal standard through Congress, and believes it is possible because it’s a rare case where it would be beneficial to everyone. But even in crafting such a bill, there are other implications to consider, such as that high school quarterback from Texas who winds up at Oklahoma. Federal legislation is important to clarify NIL issues during that kid’s recruiting process by multiple out-of-state schools, for one thing. Also, there’s the reality that a star high school football player in Texas might be a bigger deal and more marketable in their community than some college athletes.

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“You’ll see it sometimes already, where it’s not being directly paid to the kids, but if a local business is a sponsor of the booster club, then maybe some of the players will go and do a photo shoot at that business,” said Greg Tepper, the managing editor of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football magazine. “As a thank you, or something like that, for supporting them. ...These are not faceless players, especially locally. It’s just a lot more small potatoes than certainly what’s going to happen at the collegiate level, because there aren’t many high school players that have statewide name recognition. … It’s really a collection of small towns, and one player’s popularity probably doesn’t go much beyond the city limits.”

At this moment, payments for high schoolers in Texas are a no-go anyway, Tepper pointed out, because that’s specifically written into the state’s NIL law. On a federal level, Allred sees an issue in high school athletes mostly being minors and not legally able to sign contracts.

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“But, you know, I think that in general, we understand as Americans that everyone should be able to be paid for the use of your own name, image, or likeness, and that you should be free to do that,” Allred said. “That’s a basic American tenet. It always seems unusual to have this kind of work tradition of amateurism, and in the last few decades in which we’ve seen an explosion of their sports and the industry here, the scale increased and the athletes’ share was zero? The contrast there just became too much. This is the right thing to do. Now we have to try and make sure that it’s done properly. And that’s what I’ve been focused on.”