Protecting the Sport or Protecting the Person: Why NIL Deals for College Athletes Need Federal Regulation

Karin Michel

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2025

Mayhem has ensued in the world of college sports since July 1, 2021, when college athletes could first benefit from their name, image, and likeness (NIL) based on an interim policy passed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Chaos emerged after a number of states adopted policies regarding athlete’s name, image, and likeness. This forced the NCAA to pass a policy allowing such deals across the board, while stating in their release that the organization would continue to work with Congress to create a solution on the national level. However, two years later, no such solution has come to fruition, and in that time, states that have a large investment in the success of their college sports have been able to create or edit their legislation to benefit the performance of their teams.

Under the interim policy created by the NCAA, athletes entering into NIL deals must comply with the laws of the state in which the school is located. Athletes located in states that do not have laws regulating NIL deals can form deals without violating NCAA rules. All athletes should report their NIL activities to their school, but the varying state regulations mean that athletes in certain states may have better opportunities than others, which could influence which schools prospective athletes are willing to attend.

What can be done to protect athletes and college sports?

In early June of this year, a number of head figures in college sports travelled to Washington D.C. to advocate for NIL legislation. Throughout the summer, Congress has continued discussions around NIL regulation, but has failed to get any proposal up for a vote. There is one NIL bill introduced in the House of Representatives, with multiple other draft bills in both the House and Senate. Most importantly, the proposed bill in the House involves the creation of a new regulatory agency to oversee NIL activities, but one of the proposed Senate bills grants the authority to the NCAA to investigate and ensure compliance. This proposition is troublesome because the institution that benefits from such deals should not be the one to ensure compliance.

The bills include a variety of provisions designed to protect athletes, as well as the amateur classification of college sports. For example, student athletes would have to complete a semester of coursework before entering any deals, a requirement that student athletes report all the details of their deals within 30 days, and one draft even proposes creating a trust funded by college tournaments that generate a lot of revenue for family members’ travel expenses and costs related to injuries.

It is clear that there needs to be uniform legislation to prevent certain states from having unfair advantages and utilizing predatory behaviors on potential recruits. A priority should be placed upon the creation of a new regulatory agency that could be impartial, rather than having the NCAA be responsible for regulation. NIL deals are increasing in value, and protecting student athletes should be the priority instead of the growth of the NCAA.

Why is regulating NIL deals so important?

No bill is going to fix the variety of issues with NIL deals in college sports overnight. However, these deals involve young adults signing over the rights to their name, image, and likeness, of which many probably do not fully understand what that means. The law is complicated, and NIL deals for college students are still relatively new and clearly not uniformly regulated. Therefore, the priority must be placed upon protecting the student athletes as people first. College sports have long been responsible for the majority of revenue at a number of collegiate institutions. At the same time, the colleges have preyed upon student athlete’s inability to profit off the work that they do outside of scholarships. Today, that shifts to an entirely different issue, with the potential for large corporations to take advantage of unknowing young adults who are easily impressed by a large number or a flashy label. So ensuring that these young athletes are well represented and making educated decisions is vital in regulating NIL deals for college sports.

A new bill is necessary to uniformly regulate NIL deals, and it is vital that a separate regulatory agency is created to monitor and enforce the new law. To best protect athletes, the NCAA cannot be responsible for regulating deals that they benefit from in the long run. While there should be urgency in finding a national solution for the conflicts in NIL deals, it is important that Congress does not forget that these student athletes are people first, and their interests should come before corporate interests when drafting these regulations.