Midsummer Musings: NIL rules are a step in the right direction

NCAA athletes will finally be able to capitalize — though not directly — on the billions they rake in for their schools.

by Will Ennis | 7/9/21 2:00am

by Alexandra Ma / The Dartmouth Staff

Last Wednesday, for the first time in college sports history, the NCAA announced rule changes that made collegiate athletes eligible to earn money from sponsorships and other business opportunities without losing their eligibility. 

The new regulations removed prohibitions against athletes’ generating income by selling the rights to their name, image and likeness. Essentially, the NCAA has given its athletes full control over their own personal brand, a right that all Americans have but college athletes previously forfeited as part of their scholarship agreements. These rule changes have begun to provide the long overdue opportunity for top college athletes to tap into the billions of dollars they generate for their universities. Athletes will also now be permitted to hire professionals such as agents, lawyers and tax professionals to help them navigate these previously uncharted waters.

Take NCAA football. Football generates an estimated four billion dollars in annual revenue split across the 65 schools that make up the Power Five conferences, the largest and most valuable conferences in the country. Until last week, football players weren’t able to financially capitalize on their play on a national stage, let alone directly benefit from that revenue. That, at least, has changed now.

Think back to 2018, when freshman Zion Williamson suited up for the Duke Blue Devils. He arrived in Durham already with a massive following, arguably the most well-known and hyped up high school basketball player since LeBron James. The opportunity that owning his own NIL rights for his one year in college would have given him is incalculable. For many talented young athletes, that’s life changing money. Even for a  lower-profile college athlete, the rule changes will allow them to promote local businesses in exchange for money or free items or meals. To have access to these opportunities one to three years earlier could certainly be an incentive for players to play in college — something that some seem to have been turning away from in recent years.

Looking ahead to this year’s NBA draft, two projected top five picks are listed not with a college next to their name, but the words “G League Ignite.” Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga, two highly-touted prospects at the top of a loaded 2021 draft, elected to play for this special team specifically set up in the NBA’s developmental league as an alternative to college ball for young players. 

The benefits to playing for this team are clear. For one, players on Ignite earn a salary — up to $500,000) — something that remains untrue for NCAA athletes. Second, it allows these players — who know they’ll be entering the draft the following year — to focus entirely on preparation for that process with access to NBA-level facilities and training programs.

The NCAA’s newfound flexibility on NIL restrictions, something that had been argued over for the last decade, is due to various factors too complicated to get all the way into in this space, but it can certainly be seen as a response to these sorts of alternatives beginning to arise for top players. The competitive advantage that still belongs to the NCAA is viewership. The number of people watching a G League Ignite game will forever pale in comparison to those watching most college basketball, let alone a tournament like March Madness. For football, the college viewership is even greater — and potential alternatives still nearly nonexistent. By giving athletes their NIL rights, the NCAA has created a strong argument for choosing college play over professional alternatives: “Play well on this stage, and you’ll earn more money from endorsements and sponsorships than you ever could at one of these alternatives.”

All in all, these rule changes, coming after ten years of pressure from athletes themselves, lawmakers and the general viewing public, are long overdue. The decision may be a somewhat self-serving one by the NCAA after seeing new professional opportunities crop up for athletes. Moreover, this is certainly not entirely fair compensation for athletes, who will still be paid pennies on the dollar they bring in in revenue — and not even by the schools themselves. Still, allowing these high-level athletes on a national stage the freedom to profit off of their own images — a right that every person in this country has — is a massive step in the right direction for the NCAA and an enormous win in this moment for all collegiate athletes.