When Jack “Goose” Givens helped lead the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team to a 30-win season and the 1978 NCAA tournament title, all he and his teammates could count on for their efforts was their athletic scholarships and modest stipends of $15 a month from the school.
“They called it laundry money,” Givens recalls. “That is what they expected us to live on.”
For years, student-athletes have criticized the collegiate athletic system that allowed the NCAA, universities, broadcast networks, and others to enjoy millions of dollars in profits off of their labors. The system had to operate that way, argued the NCAA, because compensating players would mean they would no longer be amateurs, and that could destroy the college game.
But recent court decisions have broken the NCAA’s grip on how collegiate student-athletes are compensated. Players who once couldn’t even control the use of their own name, image or likeness now have the opportunity to benefit from their personal brands. That change, which has unfolded since July 1 through a series of state-level laws and executive orders, is creating what some are calling a “Wild West” in college sports as businesses and boosters rush to sign endorsement deals big and small with college athletes.
Givens says he’s “100 percent” for the change.
“I think it’s going to be awesome opportunities for players,” he says. “It’s needed, I think it’s well deserved, and way past time.”
Student-Athletes Already Netting Hundreds of Deals
College athletes in Kentucky are currently operating under broad name, image, and likeness (also called NIL) rules put in place through an executive order issued by Gov. Andy Beshear in late June. His order allows student-athletes to sign endorsement or sponsorship deals and to use agents to assist with their NIL contracts. The athlete can receive money or free products as compensation for their endorsement or participation at current market rates.
The players’ schools can enact reasonable limits on how much time their student-athletes can devote to NIL work and what products or services they endorse. For example, they are prohibited from promoting alcohol or tobacco products, weapons, gambling, or sexually-oriented activities. Beshear’s order also directs schools to give their student-athletes training on financial literacy as well as personal brand, time, and money management.
Rachel Baker, executive associate athletics director at UK, says their players have signed more than 500 NIL deals. They range from star football and basketball players (men and women) down to athletes in non-revenue generating sports, including track and field hurdler Masai Russell and air rifle shooter Mary Tucker, who won a silver medal at this year’s Olympics.
“I haven’t disapproved one deal,” says Baker. “What we are looking for is whether or not what they are doing actually complies with the executive order… What is prohibited, though, is them actually getting something and not having to do anything for that.”
It’s not just individual athletes who can benefit from NIL deals. U of L Associate Athletic Director Matthew Banker says it can be an entire team, like the school’s number-one ranked women’s volleyball squad, or a specific position group, like Louisville football’s offensive line.
“For many, their visibility is going to be at its highest when they’re in college,” says Banker. “Many aren’t going to go professional… so to maximize that while they’re in college is something that we can do in a cohesive fashion.”
Student-athletes must disclose their NIL deals to their schools or risk a loss of eligibility. Both U of L and UK have given their players smartphone apps they can use to report their proposed deals by answering a few basic questions. Banker says that kind of convenience is important because deals can come through social media so quickly.
As for helping student-athletes with financial and legal issues, Baker and Banker say that’s nothing new for UK or U of L.
“We’re stewards to young people 18-to-21, 22-year-olds who are new to this business environment,” says Banker. “They’re dealing with contracts, they’re dealing with negotiations, trying to understand their own value, their own rights.”
“We’ve been in the business for many years of helping student-athletes create and build their own personal brand,” says Baker. “Now they’re at an opportunity where they can actually take advantage of that and capitalize on it.”
Potential State Legislation to Regulate NIL Deals
Still, that “Wild West” concern still looms large, given how quickly NIL opportunities emerged, the amount of money that could be at play, and the fact that student-athletes and their families likely have little experience navigating these kinds of deals. There are also no national standards yet.
Baker says the NCAA, the nonprofit organization that governs collegiate athletics and student-athletes, has directed member schools to follow any NIL laws set by their home states. The association also mandates that NIL deals cannot create a pay-for-play scenario or be used as inducement to recruit prospects to a school.
Congress could also intervene to enact national policies on NIL, but that hasn’t happened either. Without some kind of consistent national standards, some fear the current patchwork of state or even local laws could give some schools advantages over others.
“I actually think the NCAA is the entity that is best suited to do this,” says state Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey (D-Louisville). “I have no confidence that they will do it even though they should.”
Seeing where NIL was heading in the courts, McGarvey says he’s worked for several years with fellow Senators Max Wise (R-Campbellsville) and Whitney Westerfield (R-Crofton) to develop potential NIL legislation for the General Assembly. He says 28 states already have NIL legislation in place while a couple of others, including Kentucky, have executive orders on the issue. McGarvey says he wants Kentucky’s law to set a standard for the rest of the nation for follow. He also says schools should be able to put reasonable restrictions on the deals and that there must be enforcement measures if policies aren’t followed.
“We don’t want to over-regulate this as a part-time legislature,” says McGarvey. “But at the same time, we want to make sure that the kids are protected.”
Representatives from U of L and UK appeared at an Interim Joint Committee on Education earlier this month to offer their outline for potential legislation. The schools want to ensure student-athletes can make money from NIL deals, while the institutions are allowed to put reasonable limits on NIL, protect their own brands and intellectual property, and get immunity from any potential lawsuits arising from an NIL deal gone bad.
“It’s a good framework,” says state Rep. Adam Bowling (R-Middlesboro). “We’re just going to have to tighten up the language around what’s reasonable, and then also on the immunity. We need to give the university the protections they need.”
Collegiate sports marketing expert Jim Host says state legislative action on NIL could be unnecessary. He says the individual schools are already doing a good job managing the deals now. Plus, he expects the NCAA to promulgate national policies on NIL in the organization’s new constitution. That could put schools in the position of having to follow state laws and NCAA rules that could be at odds with each other.
“I really applaud the legislature for taking this on and doing the work they’re doing on it,” says Host. “I think to establish the guideline for all universities in the state is the absolute right thing to do, and then see how that matches up with what the NCAA does, if they do anything.”
Bowling says he understands the NCAA could change the NIL playing field. But until that happens, he contends it’s important for the state to put rules in place now to protect schools and student-athletes.
“For the last 50 years we’ve been at the whim of the NCAA,” says Bowling. “If we don’t pass legislation, then we’re still at the whim of the NCAA.”
Gov. Beshear’s executive order applies to the major state universities as well as the regional universities and smaller schools, and any future legislation would likely do the same. Travis Powell, vice president and general counsel for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, says NIL deals provide more opportunities for students to achieve their dreams.
“When you think about some of the low-income and underrepresented minority students that are participating in athletics, it’s a huge way for them to be more successful on our campuses,” says Powell, who played on two NCAA Division II basketball championship teams at Kentucky Wesleyan. “This is just going to enhance that even more.”
While NIL deals offer a lot of promise for players, there are many unknowns. For example, how would deals apply to high school athletes? And could the deals create rifts among team members when some players get more or better offers than others?
Jack Givens says players at the college level understand the nature of team sports and that better athletes generally get more attention, whether that’s in playing time, in the limelight, or now with NIL deals.
“That’s supply and demand, that’s the market,” says Givens. “Some players are going to make more than others, but I think every guy in practice knows who the superstars are.”