NIL is rapidly evolving the state of the NCAA

Oklahoma Sooners quarterback General Booty is currently not on the depth chart, yet he has his own underwear contract due to his unique name. The details of the contract are unknown. // Photo courtesy of Sue Ogrocki Associated Press

Rock’Em Socks is no stranger to big partnerships. They produce custom socks and underwear featuring over 250 colleges, as well as Star Wars characters and scenes. However, as of Aug. 30, they signed an unprecedented deal with Oklahoma Sooners quarterback General Booty. While the exact terms were undisclosed, Booty will profit from the sales of socks and underwear that feature his unique last name, as well as his face and image. He is now a brand ambassador for his own clothing line — despite not even being listed on the official Oklahoma quarterback depth chart. 

Booty’s deal perfectly describes name, image and likeness rights (NIL), which is where collegiate athletes can receive compensation for partnerships involving their name, image and likeness regardless of how their professional careers turn out. The profitability of these brand partnerships might just be the tip of the iceberg, considering that NIL deals have only existed since June 2021. 

Three years ago, the Supreme Court’s landmark bipartisan ruling in NCAA vs. Alston paved the way for college students to legally profit off their name, image and likeness. For years, cases like Reggie Bush’s 2005 Heisman controversy and Ed O’Bannon’s 2014 lawsuit have led to accusations of the NCAA exploiting athletes who drive massive profits for their  university in sports like football and basketball. Bush received a suspension and lost his Heisman trophy after he allegedly accepted money and a rent-free home for his family, while O’Bannon sued the NCAA for the usage of his likeness in the 2009 video game, “NCAA Basketball 09”, effectively ending the game’s production.

When the ruling was initially made, many people within college sports viewed it as one with messy consequences. This is because the NCAA passed a rule to let individual schools dictate their compensation rules if they are not bound by state statutes. For example, Texas prevents athletes from making deals with gambling, alcohol and drug companies. Those restrictions could curtail the earning power of athletes, who may decide to commit or transfer to schools where NIL laws are more relaxed. Recognizing this, states like Mississippi started acquiescing to NIL pressure. Initially, recruits committed to Mississippi universities could not sign NIL deals, but lawmakers scrapped the restriction by Aug. 2022. 

Programs that can also facilitate deals for their athletes will be more valued as destinations. Across all sports, the 2022 transfer portal saw a 20 percent uptick in entrants. A record 1,800 basketball players decided to transfer prior to the 2023 season, and football alone saw a 15 percent increase in 2022 transfers after only one year of NIL. Not all of that can be attributed to NIL, but it is clear that NIL opportunities heavily factor. 

Many schools now partner with NIL collectives to help form deals with their student-athletes. Collectives are not officially part of the school, but they source funds from boosters and businesses to create NIL opportunities for the school’s athletes. Immediately following the NIL wave, three main types — marketplaces, donor-driven and dual — formed to occupy slightly different roles in the nascent NIL landscape. Marketplace collectives bring athletes and businesses together to discuss opportunities, donor-driven collectives give the money straight to players and dual collectives merge the two approaches. Offshoots have already formed from those three, like the player-driven collectives partnering with Auburn, Texas and Minnesota and selling exclusive access to the team in return for a 75/25 split of profits between the collective and the players. 

While the NIL conversation is largely dominated by its impact on football and basketball, it affects athletes in other sports as well. Per NIL evaluator On3, LSU gymnast Olivia Dunne is the second-most valuable athlete in college sports; she is the highest-paid female college athlete and has made over $500,000 from a single Instagram post. She has partnerships with Motorola, EA Sports and Body Armor and collectively earns around $3.5 million from them all. For some perspective, if Dunne were to win the gold medal for the United States in an Olympic gymnastics event, she would only make $37,500. Using her NIL funds, she even founded a smaller collective of her own — the Livvy Fund — which focuses on securing marketing opportunities for LSU athletes. 

Legally, these collectives are mostly unregulated, which can lead to major problems. Former four-star quarterback Jaden Rashada is the current poster child for NIL deals gone wrong. Ranked as the sixth-best quarterback in his class, he initially committed to Miami before an unexpected change to the Florida Gators, prompted by a reported $13 million NIL offer from the Florida-affiliated Gator Collective. However, the collective did not actually have the financial backing to support their hefty offer. As a result, the binding agreement was terminated and he requested to be released from his national letter of intent. He is now the starting quarterback for the Arizona State Sun Devils as a true freshman while the Gator Collective collapsed into a new operation directly under Florida purview. Stories like Rashada’s serve as a reminder that nobody wins when an NIL deal goes wrong. He lost out on potential millions in exposure, the Gators lost an exciting quarterback talent and the program’s reputation took a severe hit. 

Athletes can also enter NIL deals without really understanding what they are signing. Chicago Bears defensive tackle Gervon Dexter recently filed a lawsuit against Big League Advance Fund, who gave him $436,000 for his NIL services and 15% of his pre-tax NFL earnings for 25 years. Under Florida law, an intercollegiate athlete may not enter into any agreements that conflict with a term of the athlete’s professional contract. While Dexter certainly has a case for his agreement to be voided, it creates an unnecessary legal situation when the fine print is not carefully analyzed. 

Given the profits they generate for their schools, student-athletes undoubtedly should receive compensation for their performance. However, it is fair to express concerns about the rapid growth of unregulated collectives and their effects on the outlook of collegiate sports. The burden is now on intercollegiate athletes to operate their college careers like professional ones; they need to select their schools carefully, understand their worth and surround themselves with the right people.