In December 1985, during a college football game between Oklahoma and SMU, ABC broadcaster Jim Lampley announced that star Indiana basketball guard and Olympic gold medalist Steve Alford had been suspended by the NCAA for one game against Kentucky for violating rules by posing in a Gamma Phi Beta sorority calendar.
The proceeds from calendar sales did not go to Alford’s pockets, but to a sorority foundation that supports girls camps. That didn’t sway the NCAA’s decision.
After Lampley’s report, legendary announcer Keith Jackson expressed his feelings about the NCAA and the Alford case.
“That’s absurd,” Jackson exclaimed. “That’s one of the issues they’re dealing with. Everywhere you look, there’s ticky-tack.”
Forty years later, the organisation that serves as the face and enforcement arm of college athletics is still attempting to regulate what athletes can and cannot do with their name, image, and likeness in an environment where a plethora of state laws and a lack of federal legislation have forced schools to navigate the murky waters of name, image, and likeness, a term that was virtually unspoken 20 years ago.
Boosters have been around for decades, but they are now playing an important role in ensuring that athletes are compensated for the billions of dollars they generate for institutions.
Collectives are used by Oklahoma and Ohio State to ensure that whether you are a star or a benchwarmer, being a part of a team means visibility for all. This entails involving the general public, not just wealthy supporters, in their efforts.
The Columbus NIL Club, one of Ohio State’s collectives, allows fans to ‘financially support Ohio State student-athletes and join the ultimate fan experience,’ and bills itself as a “athlete-led fan community.”
The Crimson and Cream collective at Oklahoma is fan-driven, allowing for subscription-based donation services to support student-athletes, with funds distributed equally among team members.
According to Charlie Grantham, director and associate professor for the Center of Sport Management at Seton Hall University, while the schools are doing a good thing by assisting athletes in earning compensation, they could do more under the guise of an incentive to play for their programmes.
“What they’re trying to do is use their name, image, and likeness to gain admission to their programme,” Grantham explained. “What they don’t realise is that this was a strategic move, and they needed to give the athletes something because their backs were against the wall.”
The NIL business
NIL activities in athletic programmes can be divided into two categories: internal, in which the school exclusively contracts with any potential business entity, and external, in which an outside source of funding and the student-athlete collaborate on deals.
There are two university employees in the country whose sole job is to deal with NIL. Rodney Anderson, a former Oklahoma running back, is one of them.
Despite tearing his ACL during his senior season with the Sooners, Anderson was drafted in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. Anderson was released by the Bengals in August 2020.
“I was a little perplexed. I had no idea what my path would be because everyone tells you that athletes have a backup plan “Anderson, 26, spoke to USA TODAY Sports. He ended up with Sooners Sports Properties, a joint venture of Learfield, the school’s multimedia rightsholder, after relying on connections from his college days.
Anderson oversees NIL’s business development and operations in Oklahoma.
“One of the most common misconceptions about student-athletes is that they are paid and monetized based on their reputation. Is it free to play? And it is not based on performance, minutes played, or points scored, but on their reputation “Oklahoma’s executive associate athletic director/name, image, and likeness & operational advancement, Toby Baldwin, agreed. “That’s why you see more emphasis on a Power Five or a top 25 school, because we have a larger brand.”
Baldwin describes part of his job as twofold: ensuring that athletes who receive potentially generational wealth are prepared and receive resources, as well as people to help them understand things like taxation and financial planning.
“Staying up to date on the latest laws and educating businesses on what they can and cannot do, as well as knowing what they can and cannot do, you know how it works, dealing with an athlete, what that process looks like, and then making sure that our partners know so that our student-athletes are protected,” Anderson added.
While they receive solicitations from every brand imaginable, Oklahoma avoids doing deals that are bad for business, such as pornography, alcohol, marijuana, and gambling.
“Just use your better judgement,” Anderson jokes when describing dubious deals. “I believe our model is viable. I believe what we’re doing is safe for the athletes, and we’re focusing on their brand rather than just the money. Everyone wins in the end.”
Deals are routed through the university in a fairly straightforward manner.
The majority of NIL deals involve the use of the school’s name or logo. If a company wants to use that intellectual property, Learfield and Anderson get involved, which is why NIL has an internal component.
If an athlete and a company are not using the property and are doing a private or external deal, the completed contract is simply uploaded online as long as it meets the university’s standards. The compliance office approves the contract and is in charge of ensuring that the athlete is performing services in exchange for product promotion.
NIL has received no formal education.
Every school has its own set of rules for dealing with potential boosters, collectives, and student-athletes, particularly when it comes to the use of team-specific logos, equipment, and slogans. Brand protection is critical at each school to avoid giving the impression that the school is endorsing a product that does not align with its values and ideals.
“A lot of the brands want to move quickly when they decide they want to do an initial deal,” Ohio State senior associate athletics director Carey Hoyt said. “So, it’s a lot of coordination and a lot of different units kind of having to pitch in to make it work.”
Hoyt coached the women’s gymnastics team at Ohio State for 13 years before moving into administration five years ago. She is also in charge of sport administration and student-athlete development. This includes over 1,000 student-athletes, 400 of whom have at least one NIL contract. During the 2021-2022 academic year alone, over 1,200 deals were completed, with football, women’s ice hockey, and women’s volleyball leading the way.
And because the athletic department is so visible — particularly the football programme, which has consistently ranked in the top ten over the last decade — deals that student-athletes bring to the administration are scrutinised more closely.
Meetings with lawyers and compliance are held on a weekly basis at Ohio State. The group goes over any new issues that arise and evaluates each transaction in terms of philosophy. If there is one question about a misunderstanding, that potential deal will not make it past that meeting, regardless of how large the company is.
“It’s been extremely interesting and, at times, extremely difficult,” Hoyt said. “Trademark and licencing have felt the burden, just monitoring the use of our logo, compliance played a major role in deals,” says one executive.
Hoyt emphasised that NIL’s education is just as important as the deals with which the university chooses to associate.
“We have a concept known as the circle of care. We have athletic trainers on staff. We have mental health professionals, nutritionists, and a large number of people who surround them. We consider NIL to be part of that circle of care “Hoyt stated. “We want to make it simple for brands to reach out to our student-athletes. It’s just brought a lot of these lessons into their lives earlier, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People will be better prepared when they graduate from Ohio State, in my opinion.”
If a company wants to engage with an athlete at Ohio State, they fill out a form that asks simple questions like who they are interested in. The most important question, however, is whether they currently have a partnership agreement with Ohio State Sports Properties/Learfield IMG College.
The athlete and the company must then agree on terms and how their partnership will proceed. The university does not get involved unless facilities or equipment are needed, which is usually for a photo or television commercial shoot.