If lawmakers have their way, change is afoot in college sports.
After the Supreme Court in 2021 opened the floodgates for money into college sports, Congress appears ready to impose guardrails on universities and force transparency around deals that are making some student-athletes rich.
But it’s unclear how much these changes will benefit the more than half-a-million student athletes competing in NCAA championship sports.
“There’s so much money in collegiate sports, but the voice and the well being of the athlete has historically not been taken into account,” Nicole Goot, a synchronized swimmer for Stanford, told The Hill.
The Supreme Court decision for the first time allowed college athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness, opening the way for multi-million “NIL deals” for some of the star players at major schools. But the benefits aren’t being felt by the vast majority of NCAA athletes.
“Under the mask of NIL, the idea that athletes are being better supported is beginning to exist, but the realities of that support aren’t being actualized,” Goot said.
Goot was among seven current and former Division 1 student-athletes who spoke to The Hill in recent weeks about their own experiences with NIL and what they would like to see from federal legislation.
They agreed with the thrust of much of the legislation aiming to prevent recruiting from becoming a bidding war among a few powerhouse universities.
“If the school is offering a million to get me there and I need that money, I’m going to go there over a school that might be a better degree because I’m setting myself up for success,” Goot said.
“I’m worried that that’s going to completely reshape collegiate athletics, because it becomes less about talent, team, culture, community and becomes more about who has the most money and most connections.”
But the student-athletes disagreed with other proposals, such as one from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), a former Auburn football coach, to restrict transfers before three years of eligibility.
And they want to see Congress put the onus on universities to provide their student-athletes with the education, resources, health care, and financial aid guarantees to succeed during and after college — regardless of whether they are benefiting directly from NIL deals.
Reining in recruiting
Recruiting inducements such as direct payments or promises of profit are technically prohibited by the NCAA’s interim NIL policy — imposed after the Supreme Court decision — and would be explicitly outlawed in each bill.
But there are widespread questions about enforcement.
“They can say don’t do it. But already there’s a rule that says, ‘Don’t do it,’ and it’s being violated. What does adding this law do that really help the situation get better?” said Boston College law professor Alfred Yen. “The answer to that depends entirely on its enforcement.”
One recent case of punishment for inducement involved Florida International University’s women’s soccer and softball programs, which included a $5,000 fine and suspensions for those involved.
Perhaps the highest-profile punishment of late was doled out to the University of Tennessee’s football program in July following more than 200 violations of recruiting rules and direct payments to prospects.
The program was fined $8 million, put on five years of probation, and will be subject to an annual compliance review by an external group, among other punishments.
However, experts and athletes say the problem is still widespread. Yet no one had an answer to what would deter agents, boosters, or third parties from inducing recruitment.
Though each bill explicitly prohibits such inducements and some create a new entity outside of the NCAA to investigate and enforce the prohibition, both the punishments and methods of enforcement remain unclear.
However, simply having the prohibition as a federal law could act as a deterrent, said Bryce Choate, one of three student-athlete representatives on the NCAA Board of Governors.
UC Berkeley gymnast Elise Byun, who represents the Pac-12 Conference on the Division I NCAA Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), said SAAC has proposed that Congress require every student-athlete to disclose the contracts they enter into, creating transparency around the NIL marketplace. Each bill includes this requirement but under different time restrictions, and no punishment is outlined for missing the deadline.
Though not directly related to inducements, Elise said the SAAC also discussed whether narrowing the transfer portal – which allows students to transfer from school to school during a specified period of time postseason — will deter last-minute transfer deals related to NIL money.
Tweaking the transfer portal
Manchin and Tuberville propose forcing players to sit out a season if they transfer before three seasons with their initial team.
Choate called the proposal “ridiculous.”
“I would be surprised if that goes through,” Choate said. “If it does, we have a legislature that doesn’t care.”
University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) volleyball player Tatum DeMann’s initial reaction to the potential change was similar, noting how transferring can sometimes be crucial for a students’ mental and physical health.
“If you’re just not right for a program, then you’re not right for a program,” DeMann said.
Erin Morley, an incoming freshman who will row for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), saw a benefit to limiting transfers motivated by money.
“When NIL deals come into the equation, sports kind of take a backseat and the money and the fame kind of take the driver’s side,” Morley said.
Search for equity
According to University of Iowa track and field runner Armando Bryson, the Division I Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) has been focusing its discussions on transparency and equity.
That includes a streamlined process to vet and register agents, boosters, collectives, and third parties that will be entering into NIL deals with students.
Bryson said student-athletes should have to disclose the types of deals signed, the annual activities performed, and other components it entails — something that each bill requires, to a certain extent.
On the equity front, Bryson noted that not all sports have the same opportunity to enter into NIL deals. And even in sports that are huge money-makers, not all positions are lucrative.
Washington Commanders offensive lineman Chris Paul recalled that it was hard for him to access NIL deals at University of Tulsa because of his relatively low visibility. And that hasn’t changed at the professional level.
“(My position) is just not a position that most people pay attention to unless something goes wrong,” Paul said. “I have played the same position my whole life so I’ve never been in a position where brand deals are just being thrown to me.”
While these inequities are unlikely to change, legislators are looking to level the playing field in other ways.
Covering health care and injuries
For example, two of the bills would require institutions making more than $20 million annually from athletics to contribute to a fund or pay for student-athletes’ injury-related out-of-pocket medical expenses.
This would be “a wonderful plus” according to Morley, the incoming UNC rower.
“They [athletes] are putting a lot of time and effort, and honestly risk, into the sport that they’re competing in for the school,” Morley told The Hill.
When University of Tennessee basketball player Tamari Key was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism—blood clots in the arteries that send blood to the lungs—her university-provided insurance took care of her medical expenses.
“I know not a lot of athletes feel as though they’re taking care of health-wise when they’re not eligible or available to play,” Key told The Hill. “But I had all my doctor’s appointments, I had physical therapy, everyone was really hands-on, even from the mental health side of things as well.”
According to Choate, the NCAA adopted new rules for D1 schools in March that will require schools to cover out-of-pocket costs for sports-related injuries, among other provisions, beginning in August 2024.
Last Wednesday, the NCAA also announced it will provide member schools with injury insurance coverage for student-athletes for two years after they are no longer eligible to play.
One of the bills also proposes guaranteed tuition aid for athletes. The act stipulates that financial aid for a student’s education cannot be terminated under circumstances, like if a player sustains a career ending injury or is cut from the team.
DeMann, the UPenn volleyball player, was in full support of this measure despite not being able to benefit from it as UPenn is part of the Ivy League conference, which prohibits athletic scholarships on account of their “commitment to academic excellence.”
“I think under the condition that a student isn’t feeling like their sports are serving them anymore, like for their mental health, they shouldn’t be scared of losing their ability to attend a school financially because of that,” DeMann told The Hill.
Choate echoed DeMann’s sentiments, underscoring the importance of mental health.
“I can say from my time, if I was able to take a month off or a week off or a few practices off to focus on my mental athlete and I knew my scholarship wasn’t going to be threatened, I might have taken it,” Choate said. “But right now, that’s not a guarantee so our student athletes aren’t taking care of their mental health like they could be because if they take time off… some coaches would probably punish them.”
However, law professor Yen said schools may not be as receptive to the idea.
“I don’t think that NCAA institutions are in Congress saying, ‘Please force us to extend medical benefits to our athletes,’” Yen told The Hill. “I actually rather suspect that there would be objection to those provisions should any of these bills seriously come up for consideration.”
Some of the bills also grapple with helping students understand how NIL deals work and what to do with the money they receive. One would require students to take classes on financial literacy and life skills, which was met with mixed reactions from different athletes.
Byun, the Berkely gymnast, said some student-athletes aren’t aware they have to pay taxes on the money they receive from NIL deals. However, she said that mandating more classes would add unnecessary work into the already packed schedules of student-athletes.
“Grouping all athletes into a category of needing classes and needing education on this and that when the general public isn’t required is slightly unfair, considering we already have a very beefy and built up schedule,” Morley said.
According to Key, her team has found other ways to increase their financial literacy. First Horizon Bank, one of the team’s corporate sponsors, comes to campus every year to teach the team about taxes, saving money and opens free accounts specifically for NIL revenue.
Goot said programs could also help the situation by embracing NIL deals, so that players don’t feel judges when they sign on.
“(Success in NIL) depends a lot on the culture of your school: Is it going to be something that’s going to be celebrated like you going out and making money… or is it something that you’re going to be judged for?” Goot posited.
“The fear of judgment holds a lot of people back and the lack of clarity makes overcoming that fear of judgment even harder,” Goot added. “There needs to be a community of athletes that are trying to support each other, have these conversations, and make sure that people of all backgrounds have access.”